Maybe you are considering forgiveness for yourself or others, but you’re not sure it’s worth the emotional effort. You might prefer to ignore the painful memories, stuff it down and keep going about your daily affairs. You will just deal with it later, right?
To forgive, whether yourself or others, and to be forgiven, brings relief beyond just the emotional or even spiritual, if you at a person of faith. Today is Forgiveness Day – one of many observed throughout the year. The original was established as International Forgiveness Day in response to a call to set aside old differences made by Desmond Tutu. There is also Global Forgiveness Day next Saturday, and National Forgiveness Day in October. All have one purpose – to encourage us to set things right; and there are great health benefits to doing so!
Whether it’s a bout with your boss, a feud with a family member or friend, or a spat with your spouse, unresolved conflict can go deeper than you may realize—it may be affecting your physical health. Not forgiving has its costs. When we harbor grudges and grievances, we retain everything that goes with them: anxiety, irritability, anger, and depression. We may suffer insomnia, experience weight gain or loss, endure depletion of trust in ourselves and others, get caught up in numbing addictions and get stuck in a nerve fraying fight-or-flight mode.
The list is long and disabling. The good news: Studies have found the act of forgiveness can pay huge dividends for your health, And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
What are the health benefits of forgiveness?
In a study at Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers sought to prove what many might already feel is common sense. They wrote, “Chronic unforgiveness causes stress. Every time people think of their transgressor, their body responds. Decreasing your unforgiveness cuts down your health risk. Now, if you can forgive, that can actually strengthen your immune system.” 
Dr. Bernie Siegel, author, surgeon and retired medical professor at Yale University, said, “I have collected 57 extremely well-documented so-called cancer miracles. At a certain particular moment in time, they decided that the anger and the depression were probably not the best way to go, since they had such little time left.
And so, they went from that to being loving, caring, no longer angry, no longer depressed, and able to talk to the people they loved. These 57 people had the same pattern. They gave up—totally—their anger, and they gave up—totally—their depression, by specifically a decision to do so. And at that point, the tumors started to shrink.” 
Medical researchers have become increasingly interested in studying the effects of forgiveness as a healing process. Evidence is mounting: holding onto painful memories and bitterness results in long-term health problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits, including:
- Lower blood pressure
When we no longer feel anxiety or anger because of past grievances, our heart rate evens out and our blood pressure drops. This normalizes many processes in the body and brings us our heart and circulatory system into stability.
- Stress reduction
Forgiveness eases stress because we no longer recycle thoughts (both consciously and subconsciously) that cause psychic stress to arise. By offering our burdens for healing, we learn how to leave irritation and stress behind.
- Less hostility
By its very nature, forgiveness asks us to let go of hostility toward ourselves and others. Spontaneous hostile behavior, like road rage and picking a fight for no reason, diminishes as our commitment to forgiveness goes up.
- Better anger-management skills
With fewer and fewer burdens from the past weighing us down, we have more self-control when we do get angry. We’ll be better able to take some breaths, count to ten, take a time-out or get some exercise—rather than strike out or lash out in anger.
- Lower heart rate
Forgiveness relaxes our hearts – pain will ease out of our system. Our hearts calm down, and our heart rate decreases as a result.
- Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
This is a big one – possibly the biggest and best reason to jump into a forgiveness practice without delay. Substance abuse is a mask for underlying pain. Forgiveness helps release that pain and find the gifts in our situation instead.
- Fewer depression symptoms
Similar to lowering substance abuse, this is a crucial issue with retained anguish. Depression is debilitating and can lead to suicide. On the other hand, forgiveness gives us healing and can leave room to replace depression with a sense of purpose and compassion.
- Fewer anxiety symptoms
Almost everyone needs to forgive him or herself as well as others. Anxiety often arises when we fear we’ve done something wrong. Our guilty conscience causes tension at a deep level. Forgiveness helps us to love ourselves deeply, relieving inner pain.
- Reduction in chronic pain
Physical pain often has psychological underpinnings. When we allow a profound shift to happen with forgiveness, we heal ourselves on both psychological and physical levels. Thus, chronic pain can be reversed, and we can be restored to best health.
- More friendships
When we’re no longer holding grudges, we can get a lot closer to friends and family. Old relationships have a chance to change and grow, and new relationships can enter—all because we made room for them with forgiveness.
- Healthier relationships
When we make forgiveness a regular part of our emotional practice, we start to notice all of our relationships begin to blossom. There’s far less drama to deal with, and that’s a huge bonus.
- Improved psychological well-being
A good life, full of quality relationships, service to others and fun, is something that most of us hope for without ever knowing how to create it. By releasing our grievances, we become more harmonious on all levels. Nightmares recede, and exciting new life visions become commonplace. We feel calmer, happier and ready to give compassion and love to the world.
- Enhanced immune function
Forgiveness lowers cortisol – a steroid hormone produced in response to stress that causes weight gain – and boosts immune function. You’ll feel more relaxed and centered, and you won’t get sick as easily once you’ve let go for good through forgiveness.
Looking at the list, it’s easy to see that if you had lower stress, hostility, blood pressure and chronic pain, you’d be far healthier for it. Also, if you had better relationships, improved psychological well-being and greater emotional connection, you could be living a life of joy and purpose.
Can You Learn to Be More Forgiving?
Now, look at this list below to see if you would enjoy improvements in any of these areas of your life:
- Your Physical Health
- Relationships with Loved Ones (Lovers, Spouse, Exes, and Friends)
- Family Issues with Parents, Siblings and Children
- Trauma from Childhood
- Impacts of Racism, Sexism and Other “Isms”
- Money Worries
- Sexual Issues
- Blocked Creativity
Forgiveness is not just about saying the words. It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether deserved or not. As you release anger, resentment and hostility, you make room for empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you.
Studies have found some people are just naturally more forgiving. Consequently, they tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger and hostility. People who hang on to grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health issues described earlier. But that doesn’t mean they can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways. 62 percent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives, according to a survey by the nonprofit Fetzer Institute.
Making Forgiveness Part of Your Life
Forgiveness is a choice. You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to the person who wronged you. The following steps can help you develop a more forgiving attitude—and benefit from better emotional and physical health.
Reflect and remember.
That includes the events themselves, and also how you reacted, how you felt, and how the anger and hurt have affected you since.
Empathize with the other person.
For instance, if your spouse grew up in an alcoholic family, then anger when you have too much to drink might be understandable.
Simply forgiving someone because you think you have no other alternative or because you think your faith requires it may be enough to bring some healing, but one study found people whose forgiveness came in part from understanding no one is perfect were able to resume a normal relationship with the other person. This was true even if that person never apologized. Those who only forgave in an effort to salvage the relationship typically wound up with a worse relationship.
Let go of expectations.
An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from them. If you don’t expect either, you won’t be disappointed.
Decide to forgive.
Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t feel you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it with someone else in your life whom you trust and can be supportive.
The act of forgiving includes forgiving yourself. Failings of the past are not a reflection of your worth.
If you are suffering any of the debilitating effects of unforgiveness, it is a great day to relieve yourself and others of the tremendous burden of holding on to hurt. And if you need a professional to speak with about any of the physical effects you are feeling, find them in HealthLynked.
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Immune response: How your immune system recognizes and defends itself against bacteria, viruses, toxins and other harmful substances. A response can include anything from coughing and sneezing to an increase in white blood cells, which attack foreign substances.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A disorder in which your “fight or flight,” or stress, response stays switched on, even when you have nothing to flee or battle. The disorder usually develops after an emotional or physical trauma, such as a mugging, physical abuse or a natural disaster. Symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, angry outbursts, emotional numbness, and physical and emotional tension.
 Worthington, Everett & Witvliet, Charlotte & Pietrini, Pietro & J Miller, Andrea. (2007). Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being: A Review of Evidence for Emotional Versus Decisional Forgiveness, Dispositional Forgivingness, and Reduced Unforgiveness. Journal of behavioral medicine. 30. 291-302. 10.1007/s10865-007-9105-8.
Meisner-Morton, Carole J. Entering Your Own Heart: A Guide to Developing Self Love, Inner Peace and Happiness. Balboa Press. 2015.