We've all heard the age-old advice to "forgive and forget." It's easier said than done -- for many of us, forgiving those who wrong us or our loved ones can be difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes, feelings of hurt and betrayal are too deep to put aside. However, if it can be done, the benefits of forgiveness far outweigh the strain of resentment and just might have a positive affect on your health.
What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a concept that has been studied extensively, from its biological and psychological implications to its appearances in many major religions. It's important, though, not to confuse it with condoning, forgetting, or even reconciliation. Forgiveness is defined simply as letting go of bitterness or the desire for revenge by the victim to their transgressor while still understanding the seriousness of the original offense. In religion, forgiveness has a similar definition but with a few twists.
Forgiveness in Religion
In most major religions, forgiveness is seen as a spiritual act, something to strive toward in order to embrace peace, which can help improve your health, whether it's derived from religion or not. Because religious and spiritual practices encourage forgiveness, many individuals report experiencing greater comfort through forgiving, as reported by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. A combination of community and guidance from one's personal faith can make the journey to forgiveness an easier, more comfortable act.
The possible health-related benefits of forgiveness are not well-established, but specific studies have shed light on the matter. A good example arises from the study of forgiveness therapy in women who've suffered spousal emotional abuse done by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. While these circumstances may be more extreme than what many people go through, the study illustrates the potential that forgiveness has by showing that it correlates with lowered levels of anxiety, depression, and stress.
It also makes sense generally to think of forgiveness as related to how we react to tense situations. If you haven't forgiven a person, simply seeing, hearing about, or thinking of them can make you feel agitated, stressed, or angry. These feelings can trigger the classic "fight or flight" response, causing stress hormones to fill the body, tense your muscles, and induce a racing heart. When the body is in this state continually, it can become chronic stress, which has been reported to cause both physical and psychological harm over an extended period.
Learning to Forgive
No matter how much you know about its potential benefits, forgiveness can still be a major struggle, and it is certainly not something most people are able to do overnight. There are some suggested methods to help people through the journey of forgiving, including:
- Practicing mindfulness. Being mindful simply means being aware of when you are thinking about the person or event and how those thoughts affect you. When you notice that you're thinking about the person or the situation, take a moment to be aware of what your body feels like. Where is there tension? Do you feel constricted anywhere? The goal with mindfulness is not to necessarily change what's happening, but to bring awareness to the fact that it is. "Ah," you say to yourself, "I am thinking about this person and when I do that I clench my jaw, which hurts."
- Meditation and relaxation. Once you've become aware of how often you're thinking about the situation and the impact of those thoughts on your well being, a meditation and relaxation practice, in combination with any spiritual practice you may have, can help you develop a more compassionate response to them. Over time, you might notice that the negative associations from the thoughts begin to lessen and you have a calmer, more rational outlook on the hurtful event. There are even specific meditation practices focused on forgiveness.
- Getting help. Whether from a friend, family member, or spiritual leader, you might benefit from some objectivity concerning the situation. Someone who's supporting you can help to identify the problems related to the event and support you as you hold yourself compassionately through the healing process.
Forgiveness can play a big part in your mental outlook and health, which is linked to your physical health, making it a potentially life-changing concept to understand and master. If the inability to forgive is proving to be a struggle or is even causing harm in your daily life, consider seeking out a mental-health professional. A therapist can help provide the tools that you need to let go of harmful past events to embrace a healthier, happier future.