Resentment. Arguments. Grudges. Disappointment. Anger. All of these have something in common. Not only do they make you feel cruddy, they also negatively affect your physical body. When you forgive, you let go of these emotions. This can have a very profound impact on your well-being.
Harboring unresolved conflict can have a much deeper impact on your body than you may realize. Just because you cannot see emotions and thoughts, doesn’t mean they won’t leave a visible mark on your health.
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.” Karen Swartz, M.D., Johns Hopkins Hospital
We are social beings. Although many people value solitude, as humans we still seek love, acceptance and companionship. Yet, relationships are not simple. We have little control over the words and actions of others. What we do control, our thoughts and expectations, often get away from us especially in an argument.
What’s hard to realize is that negative emotions like anger don’t really hurt the person who wronged us. In fact, by being angry, we only hurt ourselves. Here’s what the John Hopkins organization has to say on the topic:
Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.
This is where forgiveness comes into play. To forgive seems like a simple concept on the surface. However, actually forgiving someone may be more challenging than one would think.
Instead of telling you that you’ll feel great when you’ve let go of any grudges and resentments you may be holding onto, I thought we’d first look at the science.
In a 2014 study from Florida State University, Ross May PhD et al evaluated the trait anger and the trait forgiveness in 308 healthy female volunteers. The researchers conducted three related, yet distinct studies that assessed cardiovascular health. They concluded:
In conclusion, these results demonstrate divergent cardiovascular effects of anger and forgiveness, such that anger is associated with a more cardiotoxic autonomic and hemodynamic profile, whereas TF is associated with a more cardioprotective profile. These findings suggest that interventions aimed at decreasing anger while increasing forgiveness may be clinically relevant.
A second study by Toussaint et. al, published in 2016, examined how forgiveness, stress, and mental and physical health symptoms change and relate to one another over 5 weeks. The researched recruited 332 adults, with the median age of 27.9. They published the following result:
This study is the first to provide prospective, longitudinal evidence showing that greater forgiveness is associated with less stress and, in turn, better mental health. Strategies for cultivating forgiveness may thus have beneficial effects on stress and health.
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Finally, Loren Toussaint was involved in another study on forgiveness, which he published in 2012. This one examined multiple types of forgiveness as predictors of mortality. The researchers found that conditional forgiveness was associated with increased mortality risk. Therefore, if you choose to forgive someone, don’t make that forgiveness conditional to another person’s actions. The authors write:
An unconditional perspective on forgiveness allows the process to begin whenever the offended party chooses, without the necessity of waiting for particular responses from others. Placing conditions on offering forgiveness to others adds barriers that can translate into extended duration of unforgiveness and/or decreased frequency of forgiveness, both of which may ultimately yield poorer health and greater mortality risk.
Forgiveness is not just saying the words, “I forgive you.” True forgiveness means that you have made the conscious decision to let go of negative feelings. It doesn’t matter if the person who’s wronged you deserves forgiveness or not.
If you find forgiveness challenging, or feel like you need to let go of a grudge, then here’s a short forgiveness meditation by Jack Kornfield, author of The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace. Enjoy!
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