How Does Forgiveness Help Your Health?

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.  ~Lewis B. Smedes,

Your sixteen-year-old daughter has been fighting a series of colds for three months.  One day she breaks into tears, telling you she hasn’t spoken to her best friend for months because the friend is now dating James—your daughter’s former two-year crush.

Your fifty-year-old sister calls asking you to accompany her to an OB/GYN appointment.  She’s refused to do counseling with her husband after he revealed a six-month affair with a woman colleague.  Your sister thinks she has found a lump in her breast.

A community in your state has been dealing with critically high rates of flu virus.  At the same time a series of local government screw-ups and frauds has depleted necessary salary funds and no one is admitting responsibility.

Is there any connection to be found in the above hypothetical cases?

The Forgiveness Connection

A recent study conducted in people living with HIV/AIDS would indicate that yes there is.  Just as persons in the hypothetical cases above continued to feel angry, hurt and betrayed, the study found that HIV clients who truly forgave someone who had hurt them in the past experienced a positive change in their immune systems.

Forgiveness has long been taught in churches of the Judeo-Christians tradition.  But probably even longer (Cain and Able come to mind) are tales of sisters refusing to talk to sisters, parents and children forever estranged etc.  Though forgiveness is easily suggested, for most it is very difficult to readily accomplish.

In recent years medical science has urged forgiveness as an aspect of balance or homeostasis in one’s health.  Some studies have shown that forgiving reduces chronic pain, aids cardiovascular problems, and decreases depression and anxiety.  People who don’t forgive and harbor anger can have higher heart rates and blood pressure.

To further this research Amy Owen PhD of Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, conducted the study on HIV clients.  She measured forgiveness in the study participants using the Enright Forgiveness Inventory, a tool that assesses positive and negative feelings, thoughts, behaviors, or imagined behaviors toward a person who has caused the client pain.  Her study also required a complete definition of forgiveness:  a free choice made to move away from the negative cognitive, emotional and behavioral  responses toward an individual who had caused the pain and work toward developing positive cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses to that person. 

Owen found that forgiveness aided the immune function of the seventy-eight participating clients.  These positive changes in their immune status could be measured by increasing CD4 cell percentages.  Accounting for other variables, Owen discovered: “There is something special going on between forgiveness and CD4 cell counts.”

The Process of Forgiving and the Client-Counselor Relationship

Such research could be the reason that your daughter’s cold is dragging on, your sister might have a benign or cancerous tumor and the town in your state cannot get out from under a persistent flu virus.  But getting rid of anger and moving toward forgiveness is never a slam-dunk.

Owen states: “If psychiatrists want to counsel patients about forgiveness, they first need to understand very deeply what forgiveness is and what it is not.”

Owen delineated the problems that can occur when a counselor or psychiatrist is trying to help a client who is defeated by betrayal or beaten down by loss of trust in someone dear to him or her.  First there has to be a truly trusting relationship between client and counselor or when forgiveness is suggested as a solution, the client will only hear the counselor saying: “I don’t want to hear about it anymore and what’s wrong with you that you are not just fine with it?”  Owen goes on to stress that such an exchange: “…can be extremely violating and potentially retraumatize the person who has already been deeply hurt.”

In the client-counselor relationship, the counselor frequently hears anger expressed from one session to the next.  But Owen says that’s very logical—anger is all the client has and that anger needs respect.  As the pain sears through the very life of the damaged client, anger continues to surface until the idea of forgiveness begins to take hold.  It’s not immediate and it is certainly not easy.  The forgiveness journey takes a long time.  It takes much thought and effort.  “Patients will struggle with it (forgiveness),” Owen says, “it’s not a linear process, but it is very transformative.”

Chronic Anger and Health

As research continues to reveal the close ties between mental and physical health, holding on to anger and refusing to think about forgiveness equals a person harboring negative emotions and inflicting them on not only their heart and mind, but their body also.  Rev. Michael Barry PhD from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, states: “This creates a state of chronic anxiety, and chronic anxiety has a predictable impact on a wide range of bodily functions, including the reproductive system, the digestive system, and the immune system.”

Through many studies research has shown that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin reduce the production in our bodies of natural killer cells, those that are in the ranks to fight against cancers in our bodies.

Dr. Barry also says: “There is a direct correlation between unforgiveness and our immune system, which directly affects our healing processes.  We teach people what we have learned about the process of forgiveness in a short-term forgiveness intervention program that works.”

When considering forgiving someone or something that happened in your past, the bottom line is truly that forgiveness is for you—not for the one who hurt you.  They must go off and deal with their mistakes, their indiscretions, their lies or possibly their simple clumsy life-choices in their own way.  For you it’s a cleansing, a release.  For you it brings peace and freedom, wipes away anger, and puts you back on the true path of life.

Here’s a final way to think about forgiveness:

Forgiveness is the key to happiness, the key to peace of mind. Unfortunately, most people miss the real point of forgiveness. It’s not enough to forgive someone for having done something you disagreed with. You have to go much deeper than that. You’ve got to forgive yourself for your misconception of that person — for judging that person and not seeing them as a loving human being. And that relieves guilt. (Diane V. Cirincione, Ph.D.)

6 thoughts on “How Does Forgiveness Help Your Health?

  1. The interesting thing about continuing to practise this heart-based stress undressing work I do is that wonderful things happen, seemingly without effort.

    For years, I tried to forgive a family member for alcoholism, to no avail. Then, one day, I awoke to the fact that it had happened, without the effort.

    I wrote a post entitled Forgifting Yourself, which is exactly what you’ve explained so well in this post.

    • Hi Mariana–FORGIFTING! That’s a perfect word. That’s what is really going on. I didn’t truly learn about the process of forgiving until I was in my 40s.
      Certainly I forgave people for things, but never thought about the fact that I was gifting myself and not the person who hurt me. I learned about that and it was revolutionary for me.

      Thanks for your comment. Beth

  2. The conclusion that forgiveness helps the person forgiving is consoling and as you argue is doubtless healthy for mind, body, and spirit. However your concluding quotation suggests part of the process should be finding the love etc. in the person previously unpardoned. Not taking into account the possibility that other person acted selfishly, out of callous indifference to the lives that person was hurting, and has continued to self-righteously consider what they did justified on the basis of their own pleasure and satisfaction. I’m wondering how the forgiving process moves forward in that instance.

  3. John–

    I think when you go deep down, you see that person as a loving human being who was flawed in their actions. I think the better part of that quote is forgiving YOURSELF for the misconception of that person. It is all bound up in trust, is it not? One trusts and then is betrayed. In order to heal, something has to happen. Forgiving the person takes a great deal of time. Forgiving yourself for being betrayed takes time too. In some instances, it’s a lot more complicated than any quote could ever handle. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. Your loving sister, Beth

  4. Beth-

    What a great article. I preach forgiveness to my students all the time. They carry such baggage with them and won’t let go. They don’t realize they are the ones who will be destroyed by their own bitterness.

    Thanks for addressing such an important issue.


    • Hi Lori–

      You are a great teacher, but I already knew that. This just underlines that you go beyond the words on the page or the assignment for the day. Your students are fortunate to have you present such a life-altering concept. Even though I knew what forgiveness was, it was never presented to me in this fashion and I didn’t OWN it truly, until I was way older.
      Thanks for reading, Beth

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