How forgiveness can positively affect your health

“Anger, bitterness and resentment are natural human emotions. But holding a grudge against your sister for not having arthritis, or hanging onto jealousy over a coworker for snagging your well-deserved promotion may negatively affect your health,” states an article in Arthritis Today, a consumer health magazine published by the Arthritis Foundation.

“Anger, bitterness and resentment are natural human emotions. But holding a grudge against your sister for not having arthritis, or hanging onto jealousy over a coworker for snagging your well-deserved promotion may negatively affect your health,” states an article in Arthritis Today, a consumer health magazine published by the Arthritis Foundation.

Integrative medicine is just now exploring what our grandmothers have been telling us for centuries – how you feel emotionally, affects the way you feel physically. There is an entire field of study devoted to this aspect of healthcare called “psychoneuroimmunology,” which looks at how our neurological and immune functions are intrinsically linked. So how does forgiveness fit into our overall health? Does forgiveness improve our well-being?

Research conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research reported, “People who forgive, experience reduced feelings of restlessness, nervousness and hopelessness.” Other research, including a University of Tennessee-Knoxville study, has found that forgiveness can also lower blood pressure and heart rates.

Fred Luskin PhD, and Director of the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University goes on to remark that “Forgiveness is a teachable skill; you can learn it just like you learn to play the piano.” If Dr. Luskin’s assertion is true, then we are not helpless individuals, at the mercy of our own emotions, but there is something within us that when nurtured gives us a sense of dominion and authority over the poisons of negative emotions that can be so torturous. The problem is, he remarks, that although forgiveness is much talked about, and extolled as a virtue, the skill to forgive has been lost and needs to be taught. I think that there is a lot of truth to this insight, whether it is forgiveness of oneself, or of others.

So how do we begin to forgive?

At one point, I was having a great deal of difficulty with the concept of forgiveness. It seemed that it was all talk, without the “how.” I was not able to just “let go” as some people could. And then I discovered an important first step in learning to forgive.

One needs to feel safe first.

As long as I did not feel safe about the person I was trying to forgive, I was just going around in circles. So dispelling the fear of further hurt was the place I started with every day in my prayers. Contemplative prayer is a wonderful place to feel safe, and like meditation, it requires learning and practice. That quiet space where one can safely think through fears by turning to, and feeling the love of God, is the beginning of learning to feel safe. Learning to forgive comes from that feeling of tranquility, which is in proportion to the safety we feel. It is here that we learn new things about ourselves, renew our mental strength, and find a calm that brings a sense of security and the ability to forgive. Love is at the heart of our health, and feeling spiritually safe is an effect of feeling the divine Love that is not subject to the variables of human existence. Practicing this form of prayer brings gentle healing into our lives at every point. It leads to being able to forgive all, even ourselves.

Published in the Times Colonist April 12 2012