Let go of hard feelings to make room for joy.
Does your blood start to boil when you recall that time in college when your supposed BFF stole your sweater and your boyfriend? Is there a lump in your throat when thinking about the feeling of abandonment caused by an absentee parent? If you're ruminating on painful or stressful moments in your life and reliving the anger, frustration and misery you felt, it's time to forgive. Your body will thank you for doing so.
No, we're not suggesting you forget that a hurtful event occurred. But the emotional anguish induced by replaying it in your mind could jeopardize your physical health and well-being. Lower self-esteem, dissatisfaction with life, poorer mental health and increased blood pressure are a few ways unforgiveness can impact your body, according to a study in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Separate research found nursing a grudge can decrease your ability to perform physical tasks.
Harness the power of forgiveness to boost your health.
THE PRICE OF RESENTMENT
"Harboring a grudge and choosing not to forgive someone set a neurological chain of events in motion," explains Bradley Nelson, a holistic chiropractor and the author of The Emotion Code.
That reaction in your head—and then your body—is your fight or flight response. "It's the same reaction as when you're faced with something dangerous or scary," explains Nelson. "When your brain receives the signal that you might be in trouble, it triggers the release of several stress hormones including adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol," he adds. And all those chemicals coursing through your body are handy if you're staring down a bear in the woods. They give you the courage and energy to stand your ground or run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Animosity, resentment and an inability or unwillingness to forgive prompt that same cascade of hormonal and physical feedback. Whenever you revisit that anger and bitterness, you flip on your fight or flight reflex. Constantly being in such a distraught state means "you'll have an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and sugar in your bloodstream," says Meryl B. Rome, M.D., owner, Boca Integrative Health in Boca Raton, Florida. Over time that can take a toll on your heart. "You'll also use up your energy instead of storing it, so you're more likely to feel fatigued when you don't forgive." Every time you think about a grudge, your immune system takes a hit, says Nelson.
And expect to call in sick to work. Those stress chemicals bathe the tissues in your body for up to 24 hours from their release. "The uptick in these stress response hormones diminishes your immune system's capability," adds Nelson. A lack of forgiveness may have you catching a cold or getting the flu more than normal.
Rome says our body does a 180 when we're able to let go of old pain." "When we forgive, the opposing parasympathetic system to the fight or flight response, which controls restfulness and calm, is activated to slow down your heart rate and help your body maintain normal levels of stress hormones to promote overall health," she explains. As difficult as it may be, getting past old hurts is a gift to your body that you deserve.
TIME TO RELEASE
"We tend to withhold forgiveness as a way to get even with someone we feel has hurt us," says Nelson. "But nothing could be further from the truth. All we're doing is hurting ourselves." The other guy isn't the one with increased stress hormones and a compromised immune system. And you could get so stuck in a harmful unforgiving cycle that you are unable to recognize the red flags that something is wrong.
One clear indicator of a need to bury the hatchet is if thinking about someone who hurt you results in anything other than a feeling of peace about them. "If you think of that person and negative emotions like resentment, hatred or anger start to well up, you have some work to do," explains Nelson.
"You'll know you're carrying unhealthy emotional baggage when you have feelings or thoughts related to a person or situation that weigh you down and sit on your conscience," adds Danielle LaPorte, author of White Hot Truth: Clarity for Keeping it Real on Your Spiritual Path From One Seeker to Another.
Before you can begin the process of forgiving, LaPorte stresses the importance of defining what that means. She says forgiving isn't forgetting what you've experienced or letting someone who hurt you back into your life and heart: "It's forgiving them for what they've done and creating your new life. Decide on how you want to feel about the situation going forward."
She suggests looking beyond the offending act someone committed against you. "It's about addressing someone's soul while seeing them as a whole person," explains LaPorte. "You can have compassion for a soul while still acknowledging the attributes of that personality. In doing so, you make a choice not to have those negatives in your life while still opting to forgive and wanting the best for who they are as a person. Love them and set them free."
Reframing the situation can also help you tap into the healthy aspects of forgiveness. "Step outside of your box to consider all the ways people you may be angry at may view the situation," suggests Nelson. "Maybe behavior that's unacceptable or hurtful to you is their normal. It's possible their reality is much different from yours, and their life experiences brought them to the point of wronging you. Considering that can help you accept the notion of forgiveness."
And even if the circumstances leave you thinking that wiping the slate clean is impossible, Nelson emphasizes you're in control. "If someone has hurt you and you don't forgive, you're continuing to give them power over you. Instead, you can forgive them to take back that power and move on with your life," he advises. Everything you've been through has only made you stronger.
This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.