Last week, while in the midst of a conversation about letting go of the past and forgiving a family member of long term transgressions, I found this profoundly moving video, featuring , Fred Luskin, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of forgiveness research.
Forgiveness and Emotional Health
Forgiveness is a foundational aspect of all religions and spiritual practices. Although ancient scriptures implore us to forgive others, it is one of the hardest yet most rewarding of all human challenges. Prior to the current surge in research interest the importance of practicing forgiveness was extolled in both religious and psychological traditions. Recently, Dr. Luskin’s and other’s research has confirmed its virtues in the promotion of psychological, relationship and physical health. Forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger, hurt, depression and stress and lead to greater feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self confidence.
Forgiveness is truly one of the most taxing aspects of our emotional health, but in order to improve our health and well-being, we must forgive..
We tend to believe that forgiveness supports the transgression that has been committed against us. But forgiveness is not an endorsement of wrongdoing; rather, it’s an act of releasing the pain and hurt it caused through love, the root of forgiveness—and it is not love of the other but of the self. We must forgive ourselves as well as others in order to be whole and healed.
Forgiveness provides physiological relief from entangled and painful memories, releasing the ties that have bound us to the past and allowing us to move on. These old, unresolved wounds are the energetic, emotional dams that prevent the unobstructed flow of health into our lives.
Forgiveness and Physical Health
A study conducted at the University of Tennessee determined showed that forgiveness is associated with a wide range of health indicators, including physical symptoms, medications taken, sleep quality, fatigue and bodily complaints.
The health benefits of forgiveness seem to come largely from its ability to reduce tension, fatigue, anger and depression. With forgiveness, “the victim relinquishes ideas of revenge, and feels less hostile, angry, or upset about the experiences,” the University of Tennessee researchers wrote. “The present study suggests that this pathway most fully mediates the forgiveness-health relationship. Thus, health consequences of lack of forgiveness may be carried by increased levels of negative emotion.”
“If there is a causal role between forgiveness and health, then reduction of anger, anxiety, and depression may explain how forgiveness operates on the body,” they added.
The act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
According to the Karen Swartz, MD, the director of Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.” Chronic anger stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight response, which causes numerous changes including elevating the heart rate, blood pressure and suppressing the immune system response. These and other profound chronic physiological changes, caused by the stress response increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among many other conditions. Forgiveness stops the ongoing stress response previously triggered by the painful memory, leading to improved health.
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 the person deserves it or not,” Swartz says. As you release the anger, resentment and hostility, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you.
Many researchers have theorized if there is a relationship between forgiveness and health, then reduction of anger, anxiety, and depression may demonstrate how forgiveness operates on the body,” they added.
Also, forgiveness aids in the process of healing low self-esteem and self-hatred. We must bring unhealed wounds out of the shadows. We cannot truly love ourselves without forgiveness. Once we begin to forgive ourselves, we can forgive others.
In the Forgive for Good workshop and class series Dr. Frederic Luskin presents the forgiveness training methodology that has been validated through six successful research studies conducted through the Stanford Forgiveness Projects.
Dr. Luskin’s presentations explore the HEAL process of forgiveness that, when learned, can lead to enhanced well-being through self-care. In class practice may include guided imagery, journal writing and discussion all presented in a safe and nurturing environment. Here are his 9 steps to forgiveness:
9 Steps to Forgiveness
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience
- Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.”
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
- At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
- Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.
- Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
- Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
Create Your Own Forgiveness Healing Ritual
Another way to forgive is to do it with a ritual. Sometimes a ritual can help us come to terms with someone or something that has hurt us. You can create your own ritual to help move you from anger to forgiveness. For instance, write a letter to the person expressing your hurt and anger, then burn it. Next, write another letter to the person expressing your forgiveness and explaining the reasons behind your decision. You can either mail the second letter or put it in a drawer, but either way, it is an important step in the journey of forgiveness.
Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being (www.superhealingbook.com)