If sitting in a room full of people chanting the syllable “om” sounds a little too New Agey for your taste, here’s some good news: There’s a simple, practical alternative that can give you some of the same health benefits as yoga or meditation.
Making a habit of it can help lower blood pressure in angry people, and those who do it regularly may actually perceive the world as less physically daunting. They also seem to have better overall heart health and longer lives.
So what is this miracle solution to your problems?
It’s called forgiveness.
We get it: The idea of forgiving someone else to prevent a heart attack sounds just about as beneficial as licking a steering wheel to prevent a car accident. But there’s a solid scientific basis for the concept, which is why medical organisations including the American Psychology Association, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the Mayo Clinic have officially endorsed forgiveness as a legitimate health-improvement tool.
Emotional Responses Affect Us Physically
When we’re angry with another person, it can often feel like physical pain. That’s because, rather than occurring simply inside our heads, our emotions often manifest themselves physically. Our bodies are designed to handle momentary stress or fear physically via the fight-or-flight response: When we get upset, our blood pressure increases and our heart rate quickens.
But when we let this process drag on for long periods — either by ignoring our feelings or by dwelling on them — problems start to occur. Our minds become clouded with ideas of how a conversation could or should have gone; we lose our ability to focus. Our shoulders and chests feel physically weighed down; we start to tire more easily.
This is where forgiveness comes in.
Forgiving Can Help Clear Away Stress After A Traumatic Event
Letting go of a personal transgression gives us the chance to recover, both emotionally and physically, from the debilitating effects of long-term stress.
In a study of college and middle school students’ emotional health three to six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a team of University of Denver psychologists found that those who were trying to or had forgiven the perpetrators of the attacks experienced significantly less stress, at least psychologically, than those who had not forgiven them or were opposed to the idea of forgiving them.
The students who said they had forgiven or were trying to forgive struggled less with their own emotions, spent less time ruminating and dwelling on the issue, and were able to employ more coping tactics, like positive thinking, to process the event in a constructive way.
In comparison, the students who had not forgiven or were opposed to the idea of doing so were more likely to have more intrusive thoughts about the experience and less able to cope with it; in short, they felt more stressed out about the event — and had a more negative psychological experience as a result — than their forgiving peers.
The students who fared the worst psychologically, though, were those who felt ambivalent about forgiveness. This could suggest that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily occur on a bandwith, and that being “undecided” in matters of forgiveness might actually be worse than resolving to address an issue. Young people who were more ambivalent, the study authors write, may have spent more time thinking about the issue and dwelling on it even though they weren’t necessarily opposed to embracing forgiveness.
There’s also no indication in the study that these students had a direct relationship to the Sept. 11 attacks, so the results could have important implications about people who tend to be more forgiving overall, as compared with people who are less forgiving.
Forgiveness Can Make The World Appear Less Daunting
The benefits of forgiveness extend beyond helping to address a specific issue, person, or event. Recent research suggests that regularly forgiving those who may have wronged us (intentionally or not) in the past appears helps us face challenges and overcome the obstacles ahead.
In a study from last year, a team of psychologists and management scientists found that people who had recently been asked to recall a time when they’d forgiven someone else for an offensive action tended to see physical obstacles, like a steep hill, as less daunting than people who’d thought about a similar incidence where they hadn’t forgiven the person.
In another similar experiment, which they published in the same study, the researchers had three groups of people recall similar incidents, only while the first group recalled a time when they forgave the person who’d offended them and the second group recalled a time when they hadn’t forgiven them, a third group was asked to simply reflect on a neutral experience, like catching up with a friend over coffee.
Then they had the volunteers jump as high as they could without bending their knees. Those who’d either written about forgiveness or a neutral incident jumped higher, on average, than those who had written about a time when they didn’t forgive someone.
The volunteers who hadn’t exercised forgiveness, in other words, seemed to be physically weighed down by the weight of their grudges, the researchers wrote in their paper.
Forgiveness Can Help Us Lead Healthier, Longer Lives
This finding jibes with other studies that have found that, in people with physical and emotional health issues (like anger and high blood pressure, for example) regularly practicing forgiveness may play a role in helping to reduce the severity of their symptoms.
Forgiveness may also protect against death from all causes, although so far there’s just an association between forgiveness and a longer life, not a cause-effect relationship. When a group of psychologists studied a national sample of American adults above retirement age, they found that those who regularly forgave other people were consistently more likely to live longer, even after they’d controlled for factors like religion, social status, and health behaviours like exercise and diet.
So next time you have the opportunity to forgive, take it. Your mind and body (not to mention the person you’re forgiving) will thank you.
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