Take a moment and ask yourself – what are you holding onto? It’s a question we don’t often stop to consider but we should, because too many of us are shouldering anger or resentment, a slight that we just never got over. And it’s apparent in our stress levels and health. Simply put, it’s hurting us.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can help to stop the damage with a single act. We can forgive.
Too often we hold onto unpleasant memories long after we should because it’s hard to forgive. After all, who can forget that girl in high school who made their life miserable? Or that boss who passed them over for a job promotion that they deserved? A father who maybe wasn’t there when he should have been?
But ask yourself – what are these memories doing to you? How are they affecting your body and health? As Dr. Karen Swartz stated, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.”
Forgiveness may be difficult, but its positive effects on our physical and mental health are mounting. And it can be cultivated through practice. Need reasons to give it a try? Here are five that you can check on.
1. It reduces stress and stress-related disorders.
Research has repeatedly shown the negative impact of stress on our health. But evidence is accumulating on the positive role forgiveness can play in disrupting this cycle.
For example, a recent study of 338 adults showed that greater forgiveness was associated over time with less stress and, as a consequence, better mental health. Another study by the same author found that forgiveness caused the relationship between stress and mental illness to disappear. In a recent interview, the lead researcher stated that “If you don’t have forgiving tendencies, you feel the raw effects of stress in an unmitigated way. You don’t have a buffer against that stress.”
Given the immense problem of stress in our society, forgiveness may be one way to reduce its impact and help out our health in the process.
2. It can lower depression.
Carrying around unresolved anger, pain, and resentment can take a toll on our mental health. Research suggests that “forgiveness therapy”, which is intended to foster forgiveness, can be helpful in alleviating depression.
Forgiveness of oneself is also helpful in reducing depression, as an earlier study also reported that self-forgiveness decreased depression and, consequently, also reduced the rates of suicide. Considering forgiveness as a two-sided process – one aimed at forgiving others and another at forgiving yourself – may help bolster mood and emotional health.
3. It protects your heart.
We feel this both physically and metaphorically. Numerous studies have found that forgiveness lowers blood pressure, and a recent one showed that it also improved a marker of coronary perfusion.
Forgiveness can help prevent damage to the heart but also reduce problematic symptoms in those with heart disease. One study analyzed individuals with coronary artery disease who experienced anger-recall induced changes in myocardial perfusion. They divided subjects into two groups –a control and a forgiveness group. Not surprisingly, they found that those in the forgiveness group showed decreased anger-recall induced myocardial perfusion defects. In other words, the function of their heart improved. And, of course, no data can quantify the effect on one’s heart when we release the burden of anger.
4. It can strengthen relationships.
Even the best of relationships can suffer from miscommunication, perceived slights, and insult. We can hold this close to us, vowing never to forget, but that does nothing to allow a relationship to grow. Furthermore, it is likely to skew our perspective of the other’s intentions and feelings towards us. What starts as something small can then snowball into a much bigger problem.
Rather, learning to forgive and even understand another’s viewpoint can foster the growth of a relationship. For example, a study found that forgiveness was the one variable that predicted growth following an infidelity. Forgiveness is crucial to letting go and moving forward.
5. It can help you reach your potential.
We all have dreams and aspirations but are often quick to beat ourselves up for the poor choices we made, the missteps we took, and the people we naively trusted. And too often we don’t forgive ourselves for our perceived wrong-doings. This becomes a heavy weight to carry. It colors our trust in ourselves, confidence in our abilities, and belief in our future. It can materialize as depression and anxiety, low self-worth, and an unwillingness to take risks and put ourselves out there.
If we don’t practice self-forgiveness, we may limit our potential. We may undercut our abilities and second-guess our decisions. We may never summon the courage to do what we really dream of doing. We may never give the world the unique gifts we have to offer.
Forgiveness is healing for our body and mind. If we all were to dedicate ourselves to cultivating it, the world might be a much better place.