Dr. Frank Boehm has never forgotten the seminal event that convinced him forgiveness is the best medicine. During a work-up for abdominal pain, headaches, and high blood pressure, a patient revealed she was estranged from her siblings because years earlier they had abandoned her in a time of need.
“My patient lived daily with anger, frustration, resentment, and non-forgiveness,” says Boehm, director of obstetrics at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “I attributed her ailments to that estrangement and urged her to consider forgiving her family.” Years later, he received a letter saying she had indeed taken his advice and — soon after — her physical troubles abated. “She had found forgiveness and from this, good health,” says Boehm.
Once the privileged domain of theology and philosophy, forgiveness as a lay psychotherapeutic tool is becoming mainstream. Researchers, physicians, and mental health counselors alike are discovering that just as unforgiving emotions like anger and hostility can cause harmful physiological effects, forgiveness may give rise to exceptional wellness. Not only can it save your soul, they say; it may also save your life.
Forgiveness and Health
“Chronic anger, resentment, hostility, shame, and guilt affect our physical well-being,” says Boston counselor and educator Robin Casarjian, director of the Lionheart Foundation, which teaches forgiveness in prisons and schools. “If inner conflicts aren’t resolved, the body suffers. In the last ten years more medical research has shown that these unforgiving emotions correlate significantly with physical breakdown.”
In fact, a study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and published in May  in the journal Circulation found that angry people are almost three times more likely to have a heart attack or sudden cardiac death than those without this propensity. The reason may be that the stresses of hard emotions damage the arteries and cause irregular heartbeats.
According to Howard Miller, co-founder of the HeartMath Institute, a mind/body think tank in Boulder Creek, Calif., studies show that chronic negativity causes physiological reactions that suppress the immune system. This can lead to more frequent colds and flu, impaired circulation, arrhythmia, irritable bowel, fatigue, anxiety, premenstrual tension, hypertension, sleep disorders, fibromyalgia, asthma, and migraine. By contrast, Miller and other experts say, appreciation, love, and other positive feelings create a state of inner balance, which promotes health.
Although the forgiveness process is complex, it generally encompasses guidelines like those from health researchers at Harvard Medical School. These include acknowledging anger; considering that the offender may have redeeming qualities; focusing on freeing yourself of resentment; and persisting over time.
The first step is understanding both what forgiveness is and what it is not.
Dr. Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, explains that “forgiveness does not mean excusing, forgetting, denying, condoning, condemning, seeking justice, or blindly reconciling at all costs.” It is, rather, a voluntary gift of mercy that may or may not end in reconciliation.
A pioneer in forgiveness research for 15 years, Enright says scientific data show a clear connection between prolonged resentment and being depressed and anxious. His early studies were with incest survivors, one of the unkindest of wounds. Yet those who forgave experienced marked reductions in anxiety and depression and real increases in self-esteem and hope. “We’ve been surprised at how strong forgiveness can be as a healing agent,” he says. “You can actually change a person’s well-being by helping them to forgive.”
Whether coping with the murder of a child or the infidelity of marriage, studies indicate a broader perspective can lead to empathy, compassion, and acceptance — even to seeing the experience as transformative. In Enright’s training, “reframing” is a pivotal step. This means learning to see the offender as a human being, considering what he might have gone through in the past as well as at the time of the hurt. From here, he suggests, forgiveness as a key to health takes on momentum.
In this emerging field of forgiveness studies, 28 programs are being funded by the John Templeton Foundation. At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Dr. Everett Worthington spearheads the Campaign for Forgiveness Research. Believing that we are witnessing “an age of reconciliation,” he suggests these five steps to forgiveness:
- Recall objectively the hurt or blame, without wallowing in victimization. This may take some time.
- Empathize with the person who hurt you. Think through what might have been going on in that person’s mind
- Recall a time when you hurt or offended someone else, and how it free it felt to be forgiven. Ask yourself if you would be willing to give that gift to this person who hurt you.
- Commit aloud to forgive.
- Hold on to forgiveness when doubt creeps in. It is normal to remember the pain, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t truly forgiven.
It is especially the quality of forgiveness that improves a person’s health and well-being, vows psychologist Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project in Palo Alto, Calif. His popular six-week classes, called of “The Art and Science of Forgiveness,” incorporate behavioral as well as psycho-emotional changes. Tools include stress-management techniques like meditation, imaging, and breath awareness to frame the actual work of forgiveness.
“You don’t have to be a saint to make peace in your life,” Luskin says. “It’s a way of looking at the world, and it builds on itself: The more people forgive, the more they are capable of forgiving. It is a manifestation of personal control over our lives.”
Phyllis Mayberg, editorial assistant at the Department of Genetics at Stanford, has taken Luskin’s course twice to deal with a messy divorce and subsequent depression. “I felt stuck in resentment,” she says of 20 years imprisoned in lost hopes. “Now I can accept who he is and the way things are. It’s not easy to change, and it is impossible to forget what happened. But I’m more in control of how I react to things — I feel less anxious, more self-reliant. I don’t concentrate so much on what went wrong. I can forgive myself as well as others, and that’s healing.”
Making Forgiveness Real
Lasting forgiveness is more than going through the motions, however: It must be a conscious choice. For 40 years, psychiatrist Gerald Jampolsky has witnessed the profound relationship between forgiveness and health. “It releases us from so much,” says the founder of the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Sausalito, Calif., where health is defined as inner peace. “When we make peace of mind our goal, we take responsibility for our own happiness. That’s what heals us — knowledge that we have the choice to change our thoughts.”
“People are finally waking up to the great importance that forgiving plays in the human condition,” UW’s Enright says. “It’s one of the more vital aspects to the good life. It’s about knitting broken relationships, and it is also a way to make sure that the brokenness of this world becomes more whole.
“Forgiveness can give you back your life.”
Beth Witrogen McLeod
All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Cooking Light, November 2000
Reprinted with permission.