Forgiveness and Our Health

Screen Shot 2015 05 23 at 7.41.16 PMBy Dr. Nina Radcliff

It’s Spring  — and interestingly science finds that we actually get excited as we gravitate towards a time of renewal in nature and “lighter” times. For most our nation, our clocks spring forward and we enjoy lighter hours, longer; we begin shedding heavier gear for lighter outfits;  and some researchers note that we tend to eat lighter and too, shift to lighter, sunnier attitudes.

And if that is not fascinating enough unto itself, two captivating studies I read a couple years ago in Social Psychology and Personality Science reported that the act of forgiving makes us lighter both emotionally and physically. In the first study, participants were separated into two groups. The first group was asked to remember and write about a time they were seriously offended by another but ultimately forgave them.

The second group was asked to remember and write about a similar time but when they couldn’t forgive and continued to hang on to the negative feelings towards the person. Following, each were asked to walk (individually) to a predetermined point at the base of a nearby hill to estimate its slant. Those who had recalled forgiving another perceived the hill to be less steep than those who had been thinking about a resentment they continued to hold.

The second study of 160 participants were separated into three groups: those who wrote about a time when they suffered harm but forgave; those who wrote about a similarly painful situation but where they had not forgiven the person who harmed them; and a control group that wrote of a recent interpersonal interaction that was benign and did not involve forgiveness. Afterwards, each participant took part in a physical fitness task, in which they were asked to jump five times without bending their knees. The height of their jumps was recorded and researchers found those who had written about forgiveness jumped higher, on average, than those who had just recalled incidents marked by a lack of forgiveness.   

Does this suggest that those who had failed to forgive felt weighed down, leading them “to jump less high – and too, that the benefits of forgiveness may go beyond the what has been established in the psychological and health domains? The research team led by Michelle Zheng of Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Managements expresses confidence of the facts in that their research showing, “that forgivers perceive a less daunting world and perform better on challenging physical tasks.”  They concluded that the act of forgiveness unburdened one’s mind and brought a lightness to their physical being and did in fact “lift the weight of their shoulders.”

There are many studies – and too, legions of medical health experts who have reported that in dealing with severely ill patients, many began to decline in health at the same time they began to harbor an offense.  Facts are that unforgiveness can cause a myriad of stress issues that can directly impact your health – and some even refer to it as poison…that can ruin your health and life.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Forgiveness

What is forgiveness? An intentional act of letting go of negative emotions for a wrong or an offense–and it may also mean doing so when the other person fails to display remorse or apologize for their behavior. It does not mean condoning their behavior but allowing ourselves to embrace peace, gratitude, joy and hope while releasing the feeling of helplessness, anger, bitterness and any resulting frustrations. We improve our well-being–emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, intellectual and mental wellness– all of which is interconnected and interrelated to our physical health.    

Are there different levels of forgiveness? Some experts in forgiveness have defined and described the following:

  • Episodic forgiveness—a single act of forgiveness for a specific offense or episode
  • Trait forgiveness—describes a personality characteristic or part of one’s nature
  • Dyadic forgiveness—forgiving a relationship partner for serious infarctions; it is a subtype of episodic forgiveness

Reduced Depression and Anxiety In a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers compared forgiveness therapy with an alternative treatment that focused on anger validation, assertiveness, and interpersonal skill building for women who were emotionally abused by their spouse. They found that the women who underwent forgiveness therapy had a more significant decrease in depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress symptoms compared to the alternate treatment group. Additionally, they also displayed improved self-esteem and environmental mastery.

Better Heart Health Finding it in our hearts to forgive, will actually benefit our heart. Anger and hostility elicit a stress response where the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released and incorrectly prepare our body for “fight or flight” when there is not actual imminent danger. And, when it is long-lasting, it can impact our heart’s health. In a large review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, these emotions were associated with an increase in coronary heart disease events in healthy people, as well as a poor prognosis in those with existing heart disease. And, the results supported that anger and hostility have a more profound impact on men. 

Reduced Pain:  According to a study published in The Journal of Pain, patients with higher scores of forgiveness-related traits reported lower levels of chronic back pain. And, conversely, those who suffer from chronic back pain demonstrated an increased difficulty with forgiving someone they perceive as unjustly offending them in some way. These findings spotlight a complex interplay between pain, psychological distress, and the ability to forgive. While the mechanism for this is not yet clear, this opens up alternative avenues for treatment that could potentially “lift the weight off” of our aching back.     

Extending Forgiveness: Experts state that some of us are born with a greater level of trait forgiveness. But like many other aspects of our health and well-being that may be impacted by genetics, such as family history of heart disease or cancer, we can take active, practical steps—we can become more forgiving. And, in regards, to episodic forgiveness, the process differs from person to person and also on the extent of the offense or betrayal. Experts in the field have made some helpful recommendations: 

  • Understand that holding a grudge affects your health and wellness. Most of the time, we are the only ones suffering; the offender is fine and living their life.
  • Commit to let it go. Forgiveness is a choice, an active process—it is not something that will just happen. 
  • Know you are powerful. While we cannot control another person’s actions or thoughts, we have tremendous control over ours. We can choose to stop re-living the pain and moving on.    
  • Accept responsibility for your role. It is seldom the case that one person is 100 percent innocent. Therefore, it is important to know what we could have done to prevent what happened. This can help us move beyond feeling like a victim.    
  • Learn from the past, live in the present, believe in the future. It is no longer happening, except in our minds. When we start thinking about the past, acknowledge it, and return to the present. 
  • Welcome peace. Whether it is meditation, therapy, prayer, deep breathing, journaling, reading, or exercising, these actions help clear our minds and allow peace to enter.
  • Empathize and feel compassion. Trying to see things from the offender’s point of view can help us understand the situation better and feel compassion for them. We are not excusing their actions, or condoning them, but we are allowing ourselves to be happy and move on. Let love for them, and, more importantly, ourselves, grow in our hearts.   
  • Forgive yourself. Someone’s actions or betrayal of you is not a reflection of your worth. For example, a romantic partner who cheated. Their infidelity is not a reflection of your worth—their behaviors do not define you.

You may even need to forgive a situation or an object—the post office, bank, a certain store that may have cheated you, etc. Take the time to rid yourself of all poison that comes from unforgiveness. And remember (Proverbs 4:23): Keep and guard your heart with all vigilance…for out of it flow the springs of life.

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.