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If You Seek Emotional Health, There is No Greater Nourishment Than Forgiveness

Stress is responsible for 75 percent to 90 percent of Americans' doctor visits, according to the American Institute for Stress. It is no mystery why this insidious biological response has been called America's number one health problem.

Chronic stress -- the type that eats away at you little by little over time - is the worst variety. Having no redeeming qualities (unlike acute stress, which may rev you up when you need the extra energy boost), chronic stress has been linked to a host of major illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, depression, autoimmune diseases and reproductive problems, along with more minor maladies like stomach upset, back pain, headaches and fatigue.

Three Words to Live By: "I Forgive You"

Most of us will harbor (or are harboring right now) feelings of pain, anger, resentment and hurt against someone we feel did us wrong. If they are not released, by way of forgiveness, these negative notions will slowly drain your energy while fanning the fires of chronic stress.

Forgiveness is supreme at reducing chronic stress, as evidenced by the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, which is examining the role of forgiveness in mental health.

What exactly is forgiveness? According to Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., the project's director, " ... Forgiveness consists primarily of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender, and developing increased understanding of situations that often lead to feeling hurt and angry."

In the project's first study, participants who had experienced unresolved interpersonal hurt (not including physical or sexual violence) attended six weeks of forgiveness training. After the sessions, most were more willing to use forgiveness as a coping method and:

  • 70% had a decrease in feelings of hurt

  • 13% had a reduction in long-term experience of anger

  • 27% had a reduction in physical symptoms of stress (back ache, dizziness, sleeplessness, headache, stomach upset, etc.)

  • 15% had a decrease in emotional experience of stress

  • 34% experienced an increase in forgiveness for the person who hurt them

As Luskin pointed out, holding on to anger over past hurts is counterproductive. "All the huffing and puffing and groaning and moaning you might do isn't going to make somebody love you more or be fairer or kinder to you," Luskin said. "It's a poor strategy that people don't give up easily, but it is something that can be learned."

Positive Psychology

Helping people to focus on the positive aspects of mental health, and exploring their relationship to our emotional and physical health, is part of an emerging field known as positive psychology.

Now researchers are identifying people's positive traits, like creativity, fairness and curiosity, rather than just the negative ones.

"For the past 60 years, psychology has approached people through victimology and a disease model of fixing broken things," said Marty Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is a leader in the new field.

To complement the field of psychology's "Diagnostic Statistical Manual," which classifies mental illnesses, a new manual called the "Classification of Strengths" has been developed. The manual identifies positive characteristics including fairness, creativity and curiosity.

"We want to show that many of these positive qualities are health-enhancing, both mentally and physically," Luskin said.

Achieving the "Impossible:" Learning How to Forgive

Forgiveness is not easy. But doing so will make you feel better, not only by freeing you of negativity but also by increasing your own sense of self control. Once you know how to forgive, it will give you confidence that you can get through other tough situations that may arise without panicking or losing control.

Keep in mind that forgiving doesn't mean you have to forget, or suddenly approve of or befriend someone who has trespassed against you. But it does mean that you forgive them, fully and without lingering resentments (this also includes forgiving yourself for mistakes!). This is a learned process, and Luskin believes there are nine steps that must be taken to get there. Here is a summary of each.

  1. Determine what about the situation was not OK with you. Talk about this with a few close friends.

  2. Allow yourself to do what you need to to feel better. This is for you, not anyone else.

  3. Don't feel that you must reconcile with the person. Instead, seek "peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story."

  4. Recognize that your distress is coming from hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset, not from the actual offensive event that occurred in the past.

  5. Use a stress management technique when you feel upset to temper your body's "fight or flight" response.

  6. Let go of expecting things from people or your life that they choose not to give you.

  7. Rather than mentally replaying the hurtful event, focus your energy on finding alternative ways to get what you want.

  8. "A life well lived is your best revenge." Focusing on the hurt allows the person to have power over you, so instead set your sights on the good things around you.

  9. Change your grievance story so that it reflects your honorable choice to forgive.

So if you have been holding anger in your heart against someone (or yourself), for months or years or decades, give yourself the ultimate gift this holiday season ... try to forgive them.

Recommended Reading

The Powerful Influencing Effect of People's Faces on Your Behavior

How to Make All Your Relationships Work


A Campaign for Forgiveness Resources

Forgive for Good

San Francisco Chronicle: Psychology's Positive Spin Just Say No to Stress

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