It appears that there are more benefits to "letting it go" than you might realize.
All of us get hurt from time to time--but when we forgive, we often feel better about ourselves. As it turns out, recent scientific research indicates forgiveness improves our physical health as well.
In a new study in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers analyzed the mental and physical health of 148 young adults. As one might expect, a correlation was found between high stress levels and more health problems. But the study also indicated that in cases where people showed forgiveness--of both themselves and others--the connection between stress and mental illness practically disappeared.
Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, authored the study. Speaking about that connection of stress to mental illness, he had this to say about the research in a recent interview with TIME magazine:
"It's almost entirely erased--it's statistically zero. 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.
...Forgiveness takes that bad connection between stress and mental illness and makes it zero. I think most people want to feel good and it offers you the opportunity to do that."
So why does the act of forgiveness have such a great impact? Scientists aren't exactly sure, but it could have to do with the following:
"There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed," says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. It is believed that chronic anger puts an individual into a mode of "fight-or-flight", resulting in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and the immune system.
Those changes, in turn, increase the risk for conditions like depression, heart disease, and diabetes. But it seems forgiveness can help to mitigate those stress levels.
What Forgiveness Is--and Isn't
Forgiveness is more than lip service. "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," says Swartz.
"The act that hurt or offended you might always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, more positive parts of your life," according to the Mayo Clinic. But "forgiveness doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act."
When it comes to forgiving yourself, it's important to remember that you mustn't completely forget a mistake you've made, or refuse to learn from it. But you shouldn't constantly relive that mistake, or insist on incessantly punishing yourself.
How to Forgive
Of course, it can be hard to forgive--especially if we feel that another person has truly harmed us, maybe even intentionally.
- Consider 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.
- Be aware that forgiveness is a process and even small hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven over and over again.
Putting It into Practice
Hanging on to resentment could be likened to leaving a knife in a wound--in doing so, we refuse to give ourselves the chance to heal. We end up hurting ourselves the most, while the offending party moves on with his or her life.
In contrast, exercising forgiveness gives us the chance to move on, too.