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Forgiveness and Health

It's not an easy journey, to get to a place where you forgive people. But it is such a powerful place, because it frees you. - Tyler Perry

Each one of us has been hurt by the actions or words of someone or the other. Perhaps an argument with a friend, parent constantly criticized you growing up, a colleague sabotaged a project or your partner had an affair. Or maybe you've had a traumatic experience, such as being physically or emotionally abused by someone close to you.

These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger and bitterness — even vengeance and can go deeper than you may realize. You won’t even realize it may start affecting your physical health. Loss of appetite, sleep deprivation, anxiety and much more can be a reason for carrying resentment in us.

It’s a proven theory that forgiveness can reap great rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. As we age, there is an increase in the forgiveness-health connection. But if you don't practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,”

says Karen Swartz, MD. director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. 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. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.

So what actually is forgiveness?

Forgiveness means different things to different people. Generally, however, it involves a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.

Forgiveness is acknowledging that there’s been an offense committed against you and then choosing to let go of resentment you may feel towards the person or persons who hurt you. It is not saying that it was OK — it’s figuring out how to move on.

The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting or excusing the harm done to you or making up with the person who caused the harm. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.

Forgiving yourself is a major part of this. Sometimes we tend not to forgive our past mistakes and carry the baggage to our future disrupting the past, present and the future.

Forgiving oneself may sound simpler than it is. Sometimes we make mistakes we never thought we would and hurt people around us. Walking around with this guilt can have major impact on our mental and physical heath. The best way to get past is to accept that there was a past you who made that mistake, forgive yourself even if others haven’t and be the person who you want to be.

If you're truly sorry for something you've said or done, consider admitting it to those you've harmed. Speak of your sincere sorrow or regret, and ask for forgiveness — without making excuses.

Remember, however, you can't force someone to forgive you. Others need to move to forgiveness in their own time. Whatever happens, commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect.

‘Changed behaviour is the best apology.’

Why is it so easy to hold a grudge?

Feeling hurt or betrayed by someone, especially a loved one can cause immense sadness, anger and confusion. If you keep dwelling on the events and over think it, with time you’ll be filled with bitterness, resentment, hostility and vengeance. If you allow negative feelings to overshadow positive feelings, you might find yourself engulfed in your own bitterness or sense of injustice.

Some people are naturally more forgiving than others. But even if you're a grudge holder, almost anyone can learn to be more forgiving.

What are the effects of holding a grudge?

If you're holding on to a negative feeling, you may:

  • Bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience

  • Become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can't enjoy the present.

  • Become depressed or anxious.

  • Feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you're at odds with your spiritual beliefs.

  • Lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.

What are some of the benefits of forgiving?

Let’s first consider not forgiving. It often leads to hostility towards the person or oneself (if that’s the case). Eventually the feeling of anger and resentment seeps into different parts of our lives. Our stress levels are high

As hostility keeps the hormone Cortisol elevated in the body. This can further trigger a range of various unpleasant outcomes including high blood pressure, low immunity and weight gain.

Psychologically it can make you feel like a victim and prevent you from moving past a trauma, and lead to anxiety and depression. Conversely, there’s strong research demonstrating that engaging in forgiveness reduces the Cortisol circulating in your body, leading to many benefits. Forgiveness also helps you to regulate your stress response and reduce your overall level of anxiety and depression.

There’s also research showing that forgiveness increases happiness in the relationship where you offered forgiveness and beyond. I feel this is because forgiveness requires being aware of oneself and soul searching’ the process can help you be more present in other relationships.

The forgiveness process

Forgiveness is not just about saying the words ‘I am Sorry’ or ‘ I forgive you’.

“It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not,” - Swartz

As you release the negative emotions, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you.

It’s been proven that some people are just naturally forgiving. Consequently, they tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger and hostility.

On the other hand, people who hold on to grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. This does not mean one can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways.

Forgiving someone is also related to the depth of hurt you felt by their actions or words. It’s not the act of saying words of forgiveness that is beneficial; it’s the intention behind the words.

The first step is to process, reflect and accept the situation.

You can ask yourself:

What exactly happened?

How do I feel about it?

How has this affected me?

What exactly is making me feel this way?

Why am I not being able to move pass this?

Here if you try to empathize, it could be really helpful. Try to put your feet in their shoes and see the entire incident from their perspective. This doesn’t excuse the act but it’ll give a fresh insight to it.

It can be helpful to try to empathize. If you can put yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you, you may better understand why they did what they did. This doesn’t excuse the offense or the offender, but it can help you see the person more as a human being who made a mistake. Acknowledging that you have sometimes hurt other people and have been forgiven can also help you learn to forgive others.

What are the benefits of forgiving someone?

Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for improved health and peace of mind. Evidence is mounting that holding onto painful memories and bitterness results in long-term health problems.

In a study at Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers found what we might already know as common sense. They wrote,

“Chronic un-forgiveness causes stress. Every time people think of their transgressor, their body responds; decreasing your un-forgiveness cuts down your health risk. Now, if you can forgive, that can actually strengthen your immune system.”

Forgiveness offers numerous benefits, including:

1. Lower blood pressure

We no longer feel anxiety or anger because of past grievances. Our heart rate evens out and our blood pressure drops. This normalizes many processes in the body and brings us into coherence with our heart and circulatory system.

2. Stress reduction

Forgiveness eases stress because we no longer recycle thoughts (both consciously and subconsciously) that cause psychic stress to arise.

3.  Less hostility

By its very nature, forgiveness asks us to let go of hostility toward ourselves and others.  Spontaneous hostile behaviour, like road rage and picking a fight for no reason, goes down as our commitment to forgiveness goes up.

4. Better anger-management skills

With fewer and fewer burdens from the past weighing us down, we can have more self-control when we do get angry. We’ll be better able to take some breaths, count to ten, take a time-out or get some exercise—rather than lash out at someone in anger.

5. Lower heart rate

Forgiveness relaxes our heart because we’ve let our pain ease out of our system. Our heart can calm down, and as a result our heart rate decreases.

6. Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse

Substance abuse is a mask for underlying pain. Forgiveness helps us release that pain and find the gifts in our situation instead, which can reduce intake of alcohol, cigarettes and other substances.

7. Fewer depression symptoms

Depression is debilitating and can lead to suicide. On the other hand, forgiveness gives us healing and grace, and can replace depression with a sense of purpose and compassion.

8. Fewer anxiety symptoms

Almost everyone needs to forgive one as well as others. Anxiety often arises when we fear that we’ve done something wrong. Our guilty conscience causes anxiety at a deep level. Forgiveness helps us to love ourselves deeply, relieving us of inner pain.

9. Reduction in chronic pain

Physical pain often has a psychological cause. When we allow a profound shift to happen with forgiveness, we heal ourselves on both psychological and physical levels. Thus, chronic pain can be reversed and we can come back to good health.

10. Healthier relationships

When we make forgiveness a regular part of our spiritual practice, we start to notice that all of our relationships (with lovers, co-workers, bosses, neighbours, etc.) begin to blossom. There’s far less drama to deal with, and that’s a huge bonus in life. We can also make room for new relationships.

11. Improved psychological well-being

By releasing our grievances, we become more harmonious on all levels. Nightmares recede and exciting new life visions become commonplace. We feel calmer, happier and ready to give compassion and love to our world.

A good life, full of quality relationships, service to others and fun, is something that most of us hope for without ever knowing how to create it.

Dr. Bernie Siegel, well-known writer, surgeon and retired medical professor at Yale University, stated, “I have collected 57 extremely well-documented so-called cancer miracles. At a certain particular moment in time they decided that the anger and the depression were probably not the best way to go, since they had such little time left.

And so they went from that to being loving, caring, no longer angry, no longer depressed, and able to talk to the people they loved. These 57 people had the same pattern. They gave up—totally—their anger, and they gave up—totally—their depression, by specifically a decision to do so. And at that point the tumours started to shrink.”

Forgiveness lowers Cortisol and boosts immune function.

You’ll feel more relaxed and centered, and you won’t get sick as easily once you’ve let go for good with forgiveness.

How do I reach a state of forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a commitment to a personalized process of change.

To move from suffering to forgiveness, you might:

  • Recognize the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your life.

  • Identify what needs healing and who needs to be forgiven and for what.

  • Consider joining a support group or seeing a counsellor.

  • Acknowledge your emotions about the harm done to you and how they affect your behaviour, and work to release them appropriately.

  • Choose to forgive the person who's offended you.

  • Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life.

As you let go of grudges, you'll no longer define your life by how you've been hurt. You might even find compassion and understanding.

What happens if I can't forgive someone?

Forgiveness can be challenging, especially if the person who's hurt you doesn't admit wrong. If you find yourself stuck:

  • Practice empathy. Try seeing the situation from the other person's point of view.

  • Ask yourself why he or she would behave in such a way. Perhaps you would have reacted similarly if you faced the same situation.

  • Reflect on times you've hurt others and on those who've forgiven you.

  • Write in a journal, pray or use guided meditation — or talk with a person you've found to be wise and compassionate, such as a mental health provider, or an impartial loved one or friend.

  • Be aware that forgiveness is a process, and even small hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven over and over again.

What if the person I'm forgiving doesn't change?

You cannot control the actions or behaviours of others. Getting another person to change his or her actions, behaviour or words isn't the point of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more about you and your peace of mind and body. It can change your life by bringing you peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness can take away the power the other person continues to wield in your life.

Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation?

If the hurtful event involved someone whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness can lead to reconciliation. This isn't always the case, however. It’s not necessary to reconcile with the person. You can forgive them and move on with your life without them influencing you.

Every experience you have makes the whole: YOU. So take control of what you carry from these experiences and forgive everything that was negative. This way you can regain your control and live a life full of health, calm and happiness.
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