Extending Compassion Outward: How Forgiveness Can Transform Your Physical and Mental Health



Forgiveness can be challenging, especially during the difficult times we have been experiencing over the last few months. Disagreements over wearing masks, political views, and social justice issues have led many people into conflict with one another. Whether it’s a fear of confrontation, struggles with experiencing difficult feelings, or even trying to protect the other person, there are numerous reasons why we hold on to resentment. However, holding back on forgiveness is likely hurting you more than anyone else. You may have heard the Nelson Mandela quote that says, Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” This captures perfectly the essence of what is truly happens when we’re unwilling to forgive others. In this post, we will talk about how forgiveness impacts both your mental and physical health as well as ways you can move towards forgiveness when it feels impossible.

The Science Behind Forgiveness

When we have been hurt by another person, we experience a series of emotional reactions and thought processes. What we might not be aware of is the physical process that is taking place too. Studies show that when we ruminate on emotions (a process that is painfully human), we repeatedly trigger the same neurochemical response that occurred when we first experienced the emotion.[1] So what does this mean when it comes to forgiveness? Well, let’s say the emotion you experienced was anger. Each time we think about the situation that triggered this anger, we also repeatedly activate the pain sensors in our bodies that in turn reduce serotonin levels (less happy chemicals) and over activate our stress response (hello cortisol). Continued activation of this response can lead to long term mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. A study that asked people to think of a situation where they had not forgiven another person found that in addition to an increase in anxiety, participants also experienced increased blood pressure and heart rate, things that can negatively impact our physical health.[2]

It’s clear that holding on to resentment isn’t serving us mentally or physically. But what’s the benefit to forgiveness? Studies have shown that a daily forgiveness practice, such as loving kindness, led to overall improved mental and physical health.[3] Some of the positive effects uncovered during these studies found lowered blood pressure and heart rate, less stress, improved sleep, and reduced levels of fatigue. Furthermore, another study looked at the neurological response of participants who practiced letting go of resentment and found a release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation.

All of this suggests that forgiveness is good for us, but why does it feel so hard to do? Many people know the feeling of wanting to forgive someone and yet coming up against a wall when we try. The key to unlocking this process lies in the distinction between conscious forgiveness vs. emotional forgiveness. The difference is often found in the body. While conscious forgiveness involves rationalizing why we forgive someone in our minds, emotional forgiveness means truly feeling this in our bodies. This concept may be simple, but it is far from easy. It’s not uncommon for us to rationalize forgiveness towards someone, only to find we are holding on to resentment when every little thing the person does causes an emotional response in the body. By tuning in to the wisdom of our feelings and the body, we can begin to unlock forgiveness in our hearts.

Feel your feelings fully

While many of us believe that our emotions occur in our minds, the truth is that they happen in the body. Emotions are a physiological response. Our minds tend to narrate about these emotions, as the thinking mind does, which is why it’s easy to believe this is where they exist. True forgiveness begins when we honor the feelings in our bodies. It is fully letting all the physiological sensations of anger, sadness, fear, etc. into our bodies. When we let ourselves fully experience emotions, our bodies will also begin to deliver healing responses. For example, when we cry, our body will begin to release oxytocin and endorphins. These allow us to feel more connected and less pain. When we honor our feelings instead of pushing them away, it’s much more likely that we will come out on the other side feeling calm and able to move forward in the forgiveness process.

Express them

While sometimes feeling our feelings can be enough, there are times when we also need to express them. Ironically enough, many of us will hold on to feelings of resentment out of fear that confronting the other person will hurt them. This is especially the case in close interpersonal relationships such as with partners, family, and friends – we want to protect them even if we end up suffering. Learning to communicate effectively and honestly about how you feel can create space for repair in the relationship, something that is foundational to forgiveness. Some great resources for learning how to communicate with someone when you’re hurt are DEARMAN and non-violent communication.

Self-Compassion

Sometimes, the barrier to forgiveness of another lies in offering ourselves compassion. When we want to forgive someone but struggle to do so, we may judge ourselves for this difficulty. Offering yourself compassion in this space can transform that block and open even more space to extend compassion and forgiveness to another. It’s okay if it’s hard to forgive – some wounds take time. Struggling to forgive does not make you a bad person, it makes you human.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest acts of self-care.

While boundaries in our lives and relationships are incredibly important for our own mental health, there is space to incorporate forgiveness into these boundaries. It’s true that some wounds feel beyond forgiveness, and we can honor this space. However, holding on to resentment ends up hurting us the most. Forgiveness is hard, and it’s also an act of self-love and self-care.

[1] https://learningtoforgive.com/research/effects-of-group-forgiveness-intervention-on-perceived-stress-state-and-trait-anger-symptoms-of-stress-self-reported-health-and-forgiveness-stanford-forgiveness-project/ [2] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00839/full [3] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00839/full

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