Have you ever had your feelings hurt or been back-stabbed? Has an event or person ever made you so sad and bitter that you would never in your life consider forgiving them?
It is often the case that we will re-experience these events over and over in our heads. The more you think about it, the more bitter and angry you become because of the event, or individual who hurt you.
Unfortunately, these emotions have a stronger effect on your health than you may realize.
Every time you re-experience these negative events in life, you body suffers just as much as your mind. That’s why harboring negative emotions can lead to devastating long-term disease.
Fortunately, if you’re able to forgive, you’ll also be able to release these bitter feelings of resentment, and finally move on. The issue here, though, is that Western culture often perceives forgiveness as a sign of weakness, submission or both. This makes it harder to actually do the work to forgive those who have done you harm.
The Power of Forgiveness
Clinically speaking, forgiveness is when you get to a place where you can “release” a sense of hostility and an angry mindset towards the one who has hurt you (regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness) (1).
Keep in mind that forgiveness is a process, not an event. That’s why there is such a huge difference between decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.
Decisional forgiveness is a “behavioral intention to resist an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor,” whereas emotional forgiveness is “the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions. Emotional forgiveness involves psychophysiological changes, and it has more direct health and well-being consequences (2).”
Studies have found that forgiving personality types are related to better subjective and psychological well-being (3). Other studies have found that forgiveness is linked to improved physical symptoms, fewer medications used, better sleep quality, less fatigue, and fewer somatic complaints (4).
Forgiveness has also been linked to better cardiovascular health, according to one study published in the American Journal of Cardiology. They found that anger and other negative emotions had cardio-toxic effects, while forgiveness had a more cardio-protective role (5).
Forgiveness and Your Health
If you remain resentful, confused, hostile, and unclear about something that’s happened in the past, your physical body will also start feeling the toll.
Dr. Steven Standiford, the Chief of Surgery at the Cancer Treatment Facilities of America, remarks that remembering these sad thoughts makes one nervous and causes inner turmoil (6). Naturally, this causes an abnormal surge in the cortisone and adrenalin levels in the body. In turn, this decreases the number of cells that kill threats to the body.
So the cells that are protecting your body from disease and illness are hampered when the body is in a state of anger, hostility, and un-forgiveness. This means that you are more prone to developing diseases like cancer.
Stewing over a problem causes the body to continuously release cortisol, and this isn’t good. Choosing not to forgive will simply make you sicker, and keep you from getting better.
“It’s important to treat emotional wounds or disorders because they really can hinder someone’s reactions to the treatments, even someone’s willingness to pursue treatment,” said Standiford.
Dr. Michael Barry author of the book The Forgiveness Project estimates that 61 percent of cancer patients have forgiveness issues. “Harbouring these negative emotions, this anger and hatred creates a state of chronic anxiety,” he explains. “Chronic anxiety very predictably produces excess adrenaline and cortisol, which depletes the production of natural killer cells, which is your body’s foot soldier in the fight against cancer.”
How To Forgive?
Learning how to forgive can take time, but it’s all a matter of re-wiring the brain and really putting in the work to change your neural networks.
It can be as simple as letting go of hurtful memories and remembering that the person who hurt you is also human. You also need to learn how to forgive yourself for carrying around the weight of resentment. Learning how to let go of the past is incredibly freeing. There are great resources online on how to forgive, like here, here, and here.