The Physical Benefits Of Forgiveness
Releasing Past Hurts From Our Minds & Our Bodies
Imagine you’re holding a stress ball, and squeezing it tighter and tighter. Compressing the ball feels productive, like you’re creating the world’s first polyurethane diamond.
But when you release, the ball springs back to its original shape and bounces across your desk. All you have left is an aching hand and the dull sensation of new stress on the horizon. What’s left to do but grab the ball again?
When we’re not in the practice of forgiveness, or in a state of “unforgiveness,” this grasping and squeezing is constant. The symptoms of unforgiveness can surface in your mind—and your body—at any level of transgression, from getting cut off in traffic to learning that your committed partner cheated on you. These wrongdoings affect us directly and immediately, but we can actually feel their effects long-term when we hold onto them.
The unforgiving mind (and body)
In 2013, a study by psychologists at the University of Liverpool explored the causes of anxiety and depression using a “biopsychosocial model” (a framework that considers the overlapping contributions of biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors). The survey of over 32,000 participants aged 18–85 found that while traumatic life events significantly contribute to anxiety and depression, a person’s response to those events and whether or not they ruminate on the event has a more lasting effect on their mental health.
Rumination, which is deep and considered thinking, can be a helpful tool for problem-solving, but it serves a more destructive purpose when we’re harboring resentment. Another study found that unforgiveness, especially self-unforgiveness, sparks this rumination, which can exacerbate depressive symptoms.
“The problem is, going back to the experience in your mind rarely fixes it,” writes Beverly D. Flaxington in Psychology Today, “rather, it cements the experience and reminds you frequently of what you’ve lived through.” If you’ve ever held a grudge (I’ll admit it, I have—I’m human!), you know the way your mind plays out imaginary confrontations or how you’ll get revenge on someone who treated you poorly. You might even recognize that you haven’t forgiven yourself for a past mistake, re-visiting it time and time again.
These repetitive thoughts, or sudden remembrances of unforgiven deeds, can stress us out—triggering our fight-or-flight response. This physical response floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol, leading to a racing heartbeat, tense muscles, and a heightened sense of danger. It’s a useful response when, say, running from a bear, but it’s not as helpful when we’re simply recalling a regret or mistake. If we do this often enough, it can keep our bodies in a state of chronic stress, which has lasting health effects.
In this state, we’re also more prone to anger, which has additional social and relational consequences. All of these very physical reactions to a mental experience can be hard on our bodies, increasing our risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, sleep disruption, and heart disease.
But squeezing the stress ball feels more productive than releasing it, and clinging to resentment often feels like our only option. What does forgiveness, letting go, really do for us?
The health benefits of forgiveness
When we move into forgiveness, we work to replace negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we feel towards others (or even ourselves) with collaborative, helpful, and more empathetic approaches. Not only are these prosocial behaviors better for those around us, they’re better for us, too.
When we adapt our response processes and move away from cycles of rumination and self-blame, we can lower our risk of falling deeper into depression and anxiety. A lowered state of chronic stress can help us think more clearly, boost our immune system, and lower our blood pressure—and who couldn’t use a little more of all those things?
In addition, when we release transgressions, we actively calm our ruminating mind and soothe anger and regret. A study found that reducing these emotions through the practice of forgiveness can lead to better sleep, and in turn, better health.
As far as our emotional and relational health, forgiveness grants us more margins in our expectations of others. When someone doesn’t meet our expectations, we have wiggle room to be surprised or disappointed, without our whole world shattering. It is a training in resilience, which can also support positive thinking and better stress management.
But how do we actually forgive?
Now you’re ready to start letting go of a few of these recurring ruminations. How can we release those feelings from our bodies? Everett Worthington, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the leading researchers on forgiveness, recommends the REACH method:
Recall the Hurt – Recognize the wrong, and decide you want to forgive
Empathize – Consider the experience and the humanity of the person who wronged you. Is there anywhere you can find compassion?
Altruistic Gift – Forgive without strings attached; forgiveness is a gift you give to others (and yourself)
Commit – Write down your decision to forgive, and commit to the process of forgiveness
Hold on to Forgiveness – Return to your decision frequently, and remember why you chose to forgive
Meditation and breathing exercises are helpful when stress and unforgiveness linger in your body. Consider loving kindness meditation as a way to specifically orient your mind towards empathy, for yourself and others.
Sometimes we don’t even know we’re harboring bitterness or that we even need to forgive. Scan your social life for little “bumps” or irritations. Are you still baffled (or feeling judged personally) by Alex’s decision to home-school their children? Are you secretly still mad at Becca for wearing white to your wedding? (Come on, Becca).
These things pop up occasionally, and we can practice letting them go in order to build our forgiveness “muscle” for larger indiscretions in the future. “Be aware that forgiveness is a process,” writes the Mayo Clinic, “and even small hurts may need to be re-visited and forgiven over and over again.”
Wherever you feel a pull towards rumination or judgment, see if you can extend forgiveness, even if there was no direct wrongdoing.
But forgiveness, for all its feel-good features, does not always mean reconciliation. Forgiveness is not justice, and it’s also not permission. If someone hurt you in the past, or you experienced something traumatic that lingers, remembering those wrongdoings can help you protect yourself (which is to say, you don’t have to “forgive and forget”). You can forgive in your own time, too. Letting go of a transgression simply means that you reclaim some of the real estate you had dedicated to it in your mind.
So, what is it that is tugging at your attention? What puts a pit in your stomach or a flutter of anxiety in your heart? Look, there, and see if there’s something you can release, or if there’s someone you can forgive. (Perhaps the person you need to forgive most is yourself.)
Instead of trying to be the hand that grasps, maybe we should aim to be more like the ball that forgives, no matter how much pressure it’s experienced. It bounces back, again and again. I think we can, too.
Have you had a positive experience after forgiving someone?
Share your story in the comments below!
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!