Health And Family

Why forgiveness is good for your health

AN APPLE A DAY - Tyrone M. Reyes M.D. - The Philippine Star

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” — The Lord’s Prayer


Jeanne Safer, a New York psychoanalyst and author of Must We Forgive?, put it most succinctly,  “For many patients, forgiveness is a double whammy: First, someone screws you, and then it’s your fault you don’t want to embrace them in heaven.”  Indeed, why do you have to forgive?  For the good of your soul?  To keep peace in the family? To hold the business together? To make the world a better place?

Well, because forgiveness is, first of all, a virtue, embraced by all the great religions of the world — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism — as a balm for the soul.  However, a growing corps of researchers thinks they found another good reason:  It is also medicine for the body.  In just over a decade, those preaching and studying forgiveness have amassed an impressive slate of findings on its possible health benefits.

They have shown that “forgiveness interventions” can improve cardiovascular function, diminish chronic pain, relieve depression, and boost quality of life among the very ill.  Researchers say the findings of various studies suggest that failure to forgive may, over a lifetime, boost a person’s risk for heart disease, mental illness, and other ills — and, conversely,  forgiving others may improve health.

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness means letting go of anger or resentment, sometimes accompanied by greater empathy for the point of view of the person who has harmed us.  It is a choice not to let past grievances compromise our future by clogging our thoughts and emotions.  It does not mean denying harm, or necessarily letting the person or people you forgive back into your life or even speaking directly with them.  It may be surprising to some, but the main benefits of forgiveness go not to the person who is forgiven but to the person who forgives.

“Forgiveness isn’t denying anything or stuffing away your feelings, but shifting into an acceptance and understanding, softening, and letting go of your resentments,” says Ann Webster, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Cancer Program at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Some people, often those with built-in resilience and optimism, find it easy to forgive and go forward after all sorts of disappointments and traumas.  For most of us, however, it is a difficult process.  “Forgiveness requires change on many levels.  There is no time frame or specific thing you must do,” says Webster.

Why it’s healthy to forgive

More recent research suggests several reasons why forgiveness is good for your health:

• Reduced stress:  Researchers at Hope College in Michigan have found that when we mentally replay a hurtful memory or nurse a grudge against a person who mistreated or offended us, the body reacts with a stress response.  Brow muscles tense, sweating increases, heart rate and blood pressure rise, and other parameters indicate that the nervous system is on high alert.  If we imagine granting forgiveness instead, these indicators do not rise but remain fairly steady.  You can’t change the past, but this study shows that changing how you think about past hurt can reduce its impact on you and the resulting likelihood of stress-related illness.

• A healthier heart.   Willingness to forgive may lower your heart disease risk.  In laboratory studies at the University of Tennessee, forgiving a parent or a friend for a betrayal was associated with lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and a reduced workload for the heart muscle.

•  Stronger relationship.  Like it or not, partners in long-time relationships often hurt each other.  In a University of Buffalo study of long-term marriages published in the Journal of Family Psychology, women were found to resolve their marital conflicts more effectively when they could forgive and feel benevolent in response to hurtful behavior by their husbands.

•  Better control of pain and chronic illness.  Faced with pain or chronic illness, we sometimes respond with anger, frustration, self-blame, or guilt for the effect of the illness on loved ones, and grief at the loss of healthy life.  The ability to forgive yourself, your pain, or your illness may promote healing.  In a study at Duke University Medical Center of patients with chronic back pain, those who received a course in loving-kindness meditation, a traditional Buddhist practice used to translate anger into compassion, felt significantly less pain and anxiety, compared to those who received their usual care. 

People often confront the issue of forgiveness when faced with a terminal illness.  “The end of life is a time when people have an opportunity to say what they need to say, to repair relationship, to say they are sorry, to let go of things they have done or said. There can be forgiveness on many levels, making things easier for the person passing and the people who are left,” says Webster.  She adds, “I do a lot of work with people who work on forgiveness after losing somebody, and it’s hard.  People often say it would have been really nice to do it when the person was still alive.”

• Greater happiness.  When you forgive someone, you make yourself — rather than the person who hurt you — responsible for your own happiness.  Increasingly, psychotherapists are finding that at the appropriate time in therapy, forgiveness techniques can help people deal with the emotional fallout from past hurts.

In a survey of patients undergoing individual therapy, presented at a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, three out of four patients indicated that they would like to be able to forgive the persons responsible for their hurt, replacing bitterness and anger with feelings of goodwill.  Many of those who weren’t yet ready to offer forgiveness hoped to reduce the intensity of their bitterness and anger.  They said they were no longer fixed on righting the wrong or getting even.  Most significantly, clients who talked explicitly about forgiveness during their therapy experienced greater improvement in their symptoms.

Finding your way

There are various methods to help guide you toward forgiving a past wrong. Among them, researchers at the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A. have developed a four-phase model for forgiveness.  Briefly, the steps involve:

•  Acknowledging your pain.

• Committing to forgiveness after recognizing change is needed in order to heal.

• Finding a new way to think about the person who hurt you and accepting that your experience was painful. For example, you may experience empathy and possibly compassion for that person through the use of meditation or prayer.

• Beginning to recognize the relief brought on by forgiveness.

Understanding forgiveness better

It can be difficult to forgive, especially if you’ve been badly hurt.  To understand forgiveness, it helps to know what forgiveness isn’t. Forgiveness isn’t sanctioning unkind actions or forgetting what happened. It isn’t justifying or condemning one’s action or seeking justice. 

To forgive, start by acknowledging the facts about an injury — sugarcoating the situation won’t help.  It’s important to acknowledge the loss you feel for what it is and recognize how you feel.  Ultimately, you have to come to a point of being able to let go of the hurt that there may be no change in the offending person and perhaps no justice for what happened.

Forgiveness isn’t always paired with settling differences — reconciliation.  Reconciliation may or may not occur.  You may not choose to seek it, or you may have no choice or other reasons, such as your offender being deceased.  What is important is the internal effect that forgiveness has on you.

In addition, recognize that you can forgive the person without forgiving the act.  The act may have been terrible. Forgiving the person is a way to take that person’s power away.  By forgiving the person, you choose to no longer define yourself as a victim in relation to the person.

Finally, you may encounter the need to forgive yourself.  Understand that if you insist on blaming yourself for being the victim — for instance, believing you somehow prompted or deserved your offender’s hurtful actions — you thwart the full benefits of forgiving your offender and moving on with your life.

Yes, forgiveness is an act of healing. And as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”








  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with