Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Forgiving Can Protect Your Health:Evidenced-Based Strategies

shaking handsThere are lots of reasons that we forgive.

To err is human; to forgive, divine. (Alexander Pope)

 An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind. (Kahil Gibran)

While many reasons are ingrained in our moral fiber and cultural roots, a more recent one has been the finding that forgiveness changes our emotional state and as such our physical well-being. Forgiving is a way to stay healthy.

The Physical Risk of Holding on to Anger

In the face of interpersonal offenses, most of us feel angry in addition to feeling insulted, dismissed and hurt. Many of us rehearse the event in our heads over and over, thinking about what we could or should have said, fueling our negative perspective of the offender in some attempt to gain some mastery over the personal offense we have suffered.

“ I can’t believe after all the time and information I provided, he minimized my role and choose someone else.”

“ Who is she to stop inviting me, when I’m the one who introduced her to everyone else?”

  • Given that what we feel and think influences our physiological reactions, negative reactions to the offense actually add “injury to insult.”
  • Research finds that unforgiving responses of blame, anger and hostility impair health, with consequences like coronary heart disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, digestive problems, etc.
  • According to bioinformational theory, physiological responses are aspects of our emotional experiences, memories and imagined responses. When we experience negative emotions, we experience stress in terms of heightened blood pressure, heart rate, symptoms of sympathetic nervous system reactivity, etc.
  • Extended physical stress from anxiety and hostility ultimately becomes a health risk in terms of nervous system, endocrine and immune system changes.

Can Forgiveness Actually Change This?

  • Charlotte vanOyen Wivliet, Thomas Ludwig and Kelly Vander Laan conducted a study in which they asked 71 college students (36 male and 35 female) to identify a person who they blamed for mistreating, offending or hurting them.
  • They then asked the students in a 2-hr testing session to move between thinking of that person with unforgiving responses (rehearsing and holding a grudge) and thinking of the person with forgiving responses (letting go and adopting a merciful attitude).
  • The subjects were instructed to do this eight times in systematically manipulated orders, during which they reported on their emotions and were monitored for physiological indicators of stress.

The findings are significant and alarming in that the unforgiving responses not only drove up physical stress responses in body—these physical stress responses including heart rate, blood pressure elevation, as well as sympathetic nervous system responses remained elevated for some time even after the subjects stopped the unforgiving responses.

The forgiving responses, on the other hand, offered a way to think about the offender and the incident with less negative emotion and correspondingly less heart rate, blood pressure and (SNS) reactivity. They promoted greater perceived control on the part of the person offended.

How Can We Use These Strategies?

  • The strategies used in the study offer us a concrete alternative to negative rumination and body stress in the aftermath of offense.
  • Simply said, you cannot be caught in the loop of rehearsing or grudge holding if you are consciously engaged in perspective taking or thinking about letting go and going on.
  • If central to offense is an assault to self-esteem, the forgiving position puts you in control of your response and the impact on your mind and body.

Healthy Strategies for Forgiving:

Develop Feelings of Empathy  

  • Broaden the View–Consider the offender in a broader way than solely in terms of the offense.

He has been a really good supervisor to me. I don’t know why this happened but I know he has helped me in the past.

She is so insecure with people—I wonder if she is aware of how others feel?

  • Take Other Perspectives–Consider other factors that may play a part in the offense.

I wonder if he was getting pressure from above to choose someone they wanted to move up the ladder?

She has had so much crisis this month, I wonder if this was an oversight?

Imagine Granting Forgiveness

  • Letting Go

Recognize that forgiveness means going forward with your own life unhooked from the burden of another’s behavior.

I have too much to do and too many good things going on to get stuck with this incident.

Recognize that forgiveness does not mean condoning transgression or denying, tolerating or excusing the offense.

This situation says more about her than me–I can let it go because I won’t stay involved if it happens again.

  • Adopting a Merciful Attitude of Goodwill

Substituting grudge holding or rehearsing with perspective taking or letting go takes you out of the victim position. It often affords an ability to see the offender with a merciful attitude.

I don’t know what or why this person acted this way. It’s a shame because it can’t bring good things or good feelings.

A Reason to Forgive

To be offended is hurtful enough.  To react to the offense in a way that takes away our sense of control, our emotional state and our health is too much to give away.

Forgiving Responses offer us some tools for body and soul. They pass forward something positive that changes our perspective of others and protects our health.

As the holiday season approaches—Forgiving Responses may be worth trying.