In Brain Health (Prevention), Depression, Heart Attack Risk, Heart Health (Prevention), Mind-Body Medicine, Stress Reduction

Nearly every person can recall a situation in which they had been wronged in one way or another. Perhaps it relates to an experience with another person or business.  Maybe it was a way we let ourselves down. Regardless of the source of the perceived wrong, the most important element to consider is how to respond. There are essentially two choices: a) hold onto anger or b) offer forgiveness. In terms of good health, choosing forgiveness is hands-down the better option.

What is Forgiveness?

The Mayo Clinic describes forgiveness as the process of letting go of anger, resentment, or vengeful thoughts. When a perceived wrong happens, one may initially feel hurt. After that, feelings may advance to anger and resentment. Depending on the nature of the offense, anger and resentment can become consuming. Forgiveness is the action of letting go of these negative feelings and replacing them with peace and understanding.

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

– Buddha

Forgiveness does not minimize the actions of a perceived injustice, nor does it excuse the action completely. An individual may forgive to move on with his or her life. However, that doesn’t mean the wrong-doing has been forgotten.  Forgiveness is simply an expression that says, “I will no longer allow this action to bring anger and resentment into my life.” The key aspect of forgiveness is about peace for the person doing the forgiving; it does not deal with the person being forgiven. The forgiver can come to terms with the situation and can release the grip of anger and resentment. Forgiveness may lead to a sense of peace and understanding.  If justice is to be pursued, such as through legal, civil, or legislative matters, it can be pursued from a neutral, objective, and mission-driven place.

Barriers to Forgiveness
While the benefits of forgiveness are numerous, forgiving is a difficult practice.  Some may say it is human nature to respond to being hurt with anger and hostility. These two emotions can easily develop into a grudge that is hard to release. We may feel that if we let go, we demonstrate weakness or that we’re condoning the wrongful action or behavior.  In these cases, we must remember that forgiveness is about self-preservation and being able to move to a place of mindful action, rather than being trapped by potentially harmful, destructive, or distracting emotions. The wrongful action remains, and relationships may be forever changed. However, the forgiver is no longer preoccupied by bitterness and anger.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

– Mark Twain

Health Benefits of Forgiveness

Anger, resentment, and grudge-holding may have profoundly negative impacts on health and relationships. These “high cortisol” feelings may be associated with increased stress, both emotionally and physiologically. Stress for extended periods of time can lead to a host of negative health consequences: heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and depressed mood to name a few.  

Research has found that the action of forgiveness can reduce stress and some of its associated consequences.  One study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine evaluated the effects of forgiveness of four key areas: spirituality, social skills, affect, and stress reduction. It’s not surprising that this study found that forgiveness greatly reduced stress, but the practice made a positive impact in the other areas as well.

Another study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology sought to identify how forgiveness and anger reduction could benefit an individual’s health. This study found that high levels of anger were often associated with elevated blood pressure and heart rate. Further, individuals who forgave, tended to have lower blood pressure and heart rate, required fewer medications, and didn’t use as much alcohol.  Several improved health markers were linked to forgiveness.

Forgiveness provides an opportunity to take back one’s life and mental space to not be consumed by anger, and hostility. By forgiving and letting go, one can have more control over thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Forgiveness as Part of Every Day

Forgiveness can be a part of everyday practice. Forgiving oneself for minor infractions is just as important as forgiving other people for monumental mistakes. The first part of making forgiveness a part of life is to prioritize it. Make forgiving a priority. Commit to forgiving oneself on a regular basis, as well as those who have and will wrong you. Make a commitment never to hold on to anger and hostility, regardless of the situation, unless you find that these emotions serve you, serve justice, or are worth your time.

Don’t get caught up in the person who had the “wrong” behavior or action. Forgiveness is about the person doing the forgiveness, not the person receiving it. Don’t wait for or expect an apology; it’s not necessary to forgive.  Likewise, the person being forgiven does not need to be informed of this – again, it is all about the person doing the forgiving.  Forgiveness does not mean that one continues a relationship as it had been. It simply means that by letting go of anger, one can be more mindful and approach change from a more balanced and stable place.

Get away from feeling victimized. As a victim, one relinquishes control, as it forces others in life to respond to person identifying as a victim.  Dr. Karpman first described the limitations of the “victim” role in 1961 – to a victim, it is hard for anyone else to engage the “victim” as anything other than a rescuer (part of the solution) or a perpetrator (part of the problem).  As a forgiver, one can move from being a victim to a place of empowerment and possibility.

Don’t give up. If one has held onto a grudge for a long time, forgiveness may not come easy. When one is ready, forgiveness can be a gradual process, like easing into the shallow end of a pool to test the water. Consider how important forgiveness is in life and for health. Consider the situation and actively remember that forgiveness may be the road from anger and hostility to a place of peace.

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