Forgiveness and Health Outcomes
Forgiveness has predominantly been a concept discussed by theologians and philosophers for millennia. It has only received greater attention from psychologists over the past three decades. Most theorists agree that forgiveness occurs after a perceived injustice or an interpersonal transgression. Researchers define forgiveness as an integrated process of behavior, cognition, as well as affect. It appears that one needs to make a conscious decision to give up resentment, harsh judgment, and thought of revenge toward the offender and instead respond with kindness and compassion. Easier said than done! Upon sharing this information with my patients, I am often met with strong reactions and confusion, and rightfully so.
What is forgiveness? Although researchers have proposed different definitions of forgiveness; however, there is consensus on what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not to make excuses, deny, condone, and forget the wrongful act. The source of a transgression, and therefore the object of forgiveness, may be oneself, another person or persons, or a situation that one views as being beyond anyone’s control (e.g., an illness, ‘‘fate,’’ or a natural disaster).” In general, forgiveness is an intentional decision to let go of anger and resentment.
Do I have to reach out to my offender? No! Forgiveness also does not mean reconciliation. Researchers believe that for forgiveness to occur, the offended person needs to transform his or her negative emotions, provoked by the offense into a more neutral or even positive emotion.
It is important to clarify the impact of forgiveness on us! Let’s look at what the literature says. Many studies on forgiveness have found a relationship between forgiveness, health, and overall well-being. For example, individuals who report higher scores on forgiveness also report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, better psychological and physical well-being, and less anger and stress. Everett L. Worthington, a renowned psychologist, and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University found that the benefits of forgiveness are many and influence an individual’s relational, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
The scientific community has measured different physical effects while participants were exposed to forgiving versus unforgiving imagery regarding a particular offender. Offenses included insults, betrayal of trust, rejection, and lies. Results indicated that participants experienced greater anger, higher levels of arousal, feeling less in control, and elevated heart rate during the unforgiving imagery condition. Furthermore, the challenges in navigating negative and undesirable emotions could further lead to heightened emotional and physiological states. Along these lines, research has confirmed that anger and hostility potentiate the release of toxic hormones that relate to the development of heart disease. Furthermore, another study on the effects of forgiveness therapy on anger and mood demonstrated significant improvement in anger as well as depression. People not only see the direct impact of forgiveness on health such as in the form of reducing stress but also indirectly influencing an individual’s social support system as expected.
It appears that the act of forgiveness can be cultivated with practice. I have witnessed patients struggle with forgiving others and themselves which could be a crucial step to healing and moving on. People begin to put on a strong armor of anger to defend themselves, at all times. It feels as though they are in a battle with people around them without much room for any movement. How free are you to respond to any situation with the heavy armor on? How is this armor really costing you? Are you able to engage in a relationship meaningfully? Are you allowing yourself the opportunity to be loved? Sounds like the armor begins to take over your life. The consequences of unforgiveness appear enormous – for us.
If you are experiencing bursts of anger, heightened arousal and physiological reactions, declining sleep quality and nightmares, impulsivity, patterns of rumination regarding offense or offender, or self-blame, perhaps take a pause and mindfully reassess. It may help to seek professional help such as psychotherapy or spiritual guidance to heal, work through the process of forgiveness, and promote post-traumatic growth.
About the Author
Dr. Bhattacharjee is a licensed clinical psychologist at Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.
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