Forgiveness. Did you know it’s the most powerful thing you can do for your health?
Yes – although I will write about the benefits of fresh, whole food and herbs for as long as I live, I learned very early on that these tangible tools can only go so far in our journeys to vibrant health. You can eat a near perfect diet and exercise daily — yet if you are holding onto anger, resentment, or trauma, you may find yourself in the same cycle of symptoms over and over again.
For some reason, our culture seems to perceive forgiveness as a sign of weakness or submission. There are shows all over television about revenge, our private for-profit jail systems aim to punish offenders and cast them away from society rather than rehabilitate or understand them. In a society as competitive as ours, people may hesitate to forgive because they don’t want to relinquish the upper hand in a relationship. It worries me that the younger generation believes that whoever can “care the least” has the most power — it’s becoming a trend to show no emotion. What I think is really going on is that people are holding onto so much pain nowadays that if they budged and opened up just a little, the floodgates would burst open.
But what happens if we push that envelope and open our hearts? Can forgiveness actually heal your body on a physical, cellular level? New research shows that it absolutely can.
Studies have found that 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.
In one study, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College, asked people to think about someone who had hurt, mistreated, or offended them. While they thought about this person and his or her past offense, she monitored their blood pressure, heart rate, facial muscle tension, and sweat gland activity.
Sure enough, in Witvliet’s research, when people recalled a grudge, their physical arousal soared. Their blood pressure and heart rate increased, and they sweat more. Ruminating about their grudges was stressful (remember, stress can produce a ton of physical ailments), and subjects found the rumination unpleasant. It made them feel angry, sad, anxious, and less in control.
Witvliet then asked her subjects to try to empathize with their offenders or imagine forgiving them. When they practiced forgiveness, their physical arousal coasted downward. They showed no more of a stress reaction than normal wakefulness produces.
That means you can instantly bring your physical body back into homeostasis simply by having empathetic thoughts for people who have hurt you. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Resolving that anger with forgiving thoughts does the opposite and actually protects you from these diseases.
A few more studies and their shocking results…
- People who practice “conditional forgiveness” — in other words, people who can only forgive if others say sorry first or promise not to do the transgression again — may be more likely to die earlier, compared with people who are less likely to practice conditional forgiveness, according to a a 2011 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
- A 2005 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study showed that forgiveness is associated with a whole range of health measures, including medications taken, sleep quality and fatigue. The health benefits seemed to come largely from forgiveness reducing negative affect (feelings of tension, anger, depression and fatigue), researchers found.
- Forgiveness can also lower blood pressure. A 2011 study of married couples in the journal Personal Relationships, for instance, showed that when the victim in the situation forgave the other person, both experienced a decrease in blood pressure.
- Research presented at a 2011 meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine showed that people with HIV who practiced genuine forgiveness toward someone who’d hurt them had higher CD4 cell percentages (considered positive for their immune status).
Did you know you don’t have to do it face to face to get the benefits?
I’ll tell you my story below with what happened to me when I forgave my mom in person. However, you don’t have to look someone in the eye and say it out loud to reap the benefits. There are instances where those who have hurt us have already passed on, or perhaps it’s not healthy for you to be around this person/be in contact. You can still heal and find closure on your own.
All you have to do is write down the person’s name on a piece of paper with the words “I forgive you” and burn the paper to symbolize releasing your anger. It turns out that doing this has the same effect as forgiving them in person, in terms of releasing oxytocin in the brain.
My forgiveness story
Many of you have read my posts before about what happened when I forgave my mother. My mom is the most creative and intelligent person I’ve ever known – and yet her ability to retreat into her art comes from a need to escape the reality of what happened throughout her life. Her mother (who went through a lot of abuse herself), abused her mentally and physically during childhood and beyond. She didn’t feel loved or worthy, and grew up hating her mother, unable to forgive or understand her actions. Unfortunately, when we don’t forgive and release what happens to us, we inflict that pain on ourselves and those we love. Thus. the cycle of mother-daughter dysfunction touched my life as well.
The way that my mother treated me growing up was… confusing. On the one hand, she wanted so badly to give me the love that her mother never gave her, so she would physically shower me with affection and hugs. On the other hand, this affection often came after an angry outburst, where she would call me names or tell me that none of my friends actually liked me or I belonged in a mental institution. I now understand that this subconsciously taught me that the only way someone really loves you is if there’s push-pull and chaos involved. I still remember my first crush in 7th grade – I liked him so much when he didn’t show me interest and I had to fight for his attention, but as soon as he returned my affection and asked me to be his girlfriend, I ran. I mean this literally; as in I told him I had to go to the bathroom at the movie theatre where we were watching Benchwarmers, and called him from the payphone outside to break it off. Sure enough, as soon as he liked another girl, my fondness returned and all I could think about was his approval. More issues than Vogue, I know!! Thankfully, by acknowledging the disruptive patterns I picked up and working through them, I’ve been able to heal these parts of myself. Acknowledging is actually half the battle.
Interestingly enough, however, I was only recently able to forgive her face to face. I held on to a lot of anger not only for how she treated me, but also how she took her pain out on my dad. I felt helpless. I even became angry with him for not protecting me… but how could he? He wasn’t even standing up for himself.
I recently went on vacation with a few friends, and on the plane ride home, I watched an M. Night Shyamalan movie called “The Visit.” Let me just say, there are a lot of hidden messages in that movie. I could write an entire post analyzing that movie bit by bit – and I have the notes to do so! (Long plane ride, LOL). The take-home message was this: the “elixir” that will heal families and individuals of shame, trauma, and self-sabotage is forgiveness. It was the most powerful message and I cried several times (yes everyone on that plane thought I was a little cray-cray), but it inspired me to do something I thought was impossible. The day after I landed I drove to my mom’s house and told her I forgive her, for everything, no questions asked. She knew I had been pulling away from her for a while now because I do believe there are times when you have to protect yourself and create distance from someone who is toxic in your life. At that point, she was, because she was so unhappy that all she could do was provoke fights and create chaos with everyone in her immediate vicinity. I understood that this was solely because of that unhappiness and pain she was feeling inside, so I had compassion for her… but at the same time I needed to stop putting myself in the line of fire. I had hardly spoken to her in the few months prior to “forgiveness day”, and I knew that was only making the way she treated my father worse, so I decided it was time to starting healing this family once and for all.
I sat on her couch, looked her in the eye, and told her that she is a beautiful person. And that she is so loved. That everything she had ever done was forgiven, because I understand that the pain she walks around with every day from the abuse (and subsequent years of self-abuse) is greater than anyone can understand. I told her that although the way she treated me at times was wrong, I know forgiving her isn’t a sign of weakness on my part. I’m doing it because I don’t believe she needs to “pay for what she’s done” or “suffer consequences” – she’s suffered enough living in the jail that is her mind. I understand that jail because I have one too, and this act of forgiveness is one of the ways I am freeing myself. I’m not making excuses, but rather choosing to look at solid explanations that one can understand when you explore the context of trauma.
If you look at people who become addicted to drugs, for example, they have always experienced severe trauma at some point in their lives, usually during childhood. People don’t do drugs because they’re bad people. No healthy human consciously wants to throw their life away. People engage in addictions to relieve pain; they are addicted to escaping how unloved and unworthy they feel. Drugs are not their problem – they are their solution. The problem is much, much deeper.
When I told her I forgave her, I freed myself from a lifetime of anger that was only hurting me. I realized that the anger she holds onto is from not forgiving her mother – but what good does that do? Her mother has already passed on. The only person that resentment is killing now, is her. I was not going to let the same thing happen to me.
Another thing happened when I forgave my mom… she became her inner child again. She immediately let her guard down for one of the first times in her life and felt safe because for once, people weren’t telling her what she was doing wrong. Her cycle went something like this: her mother would tell her she was a piece of crap that couldn’t do anything right -> with no self-worth or self-respect, she began to do things that would prove her mother’s declarations correct -> she would get berated for not doing anything right by everyone else around her and it became her identity. If I sat there and went over all the things she did to hurt me and why I’m angry, it would just reinforce to her that she can’t do anything right; she would get defensive/embarrassed and have no reason to change because no one believes that she can or gives her the love that she needs to; and our conversation would go right back to the fights we always had. That’s why I chose to forgo the details and simply leave it at “I forgive you.”
The next morning, I woke up and had a new lease on life. I could see the changes physically in my body. My skin was clearer than ever. I had actually passed many bright red liver fluke parasites in my stool without the use of herbs or medicinal cleansing foods such as carrots, papaya seeds or pineapple. This was done by pure emotional release. It’s quite fitting that liver flukes are the species that I passed, because the liver is the organ that holds onto anger and resentment.
Once I released the emotions I held for my mother, my liver became strong enough to fight some of the physical manifestations of that anger: parasites. After all, parasites are self-destructive organisms, that mirror our self-destructive emotions or thoughts. Anger only hurts the person that is harboring it, since it literally weakens your body and immune system (as shown in the studies at the beginning of this post). I can’t tell you the peace I’ve experienced since that day. My mother and I have a much healthier relationship and I accept her for who she is, allowing me to fully accept myself as a part of her. My physical health and confidence has improved, and I’m able to see the world as a safer, happier place.
Let me know if you’ve ever had a similar experience where forgiveness has impacted your life – or if you have someone you’d like to work towards forgiving. I’m happy to help in any way that I can.