Getting to a place where you can forgive someone—be it another person or yourself—can be very difficult. But the toll of not doing so on your body makes the ability to forgive a very important skill to have.
According to Everett L. Emotional Tolerance.
“You can experience a change in your feelings and then decide to forgive, or you can decide to forgive first and experience those changes emotionally later,” says Dr. Worthington.
Because our relationships are so important to health, being able to forgive and communicate to others that you have forgiven them will benefit you and their health. In this regard and in many other areas, “Mental health is directly related to physical health,” Worthington says.
More specifically, here are three big, evidence-backed ways forgiving (or the act of not forgiving) affects our health.
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1. Forgiveness helps you manage stress
Research has shown that an intolerance promotes feelings of anger, hostility, and stress, which are well documented to affect mental and physical health.
one study It included more than 330 people between the ages of 16 and 79. The researchers found that, regardless of age, people who were able to forgive experienced a decrease in their awareness of their own stressors. This decrease resulted in a decrease in mental health symptoms.
The study authors note, “Although forgiveness is not the only available strategy for coping with adversity, according to this tolerance model, it is one of the most effective responses for reducing perceptions of stress and promoting health.”
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On the contrary, stress – particularly the stress hormone cortisol – has many negative effects on systems throughout the body. Chronically high cortisol can shrink parts of your brain including the hippocampus, which is responsible for turning experiences into memories, Worthington says. He adds that the inability to tolerate and get rid of certain stresses may affect memory due to the link of cortisol produced by stress.
In one study, researchers investigated whether blood levels of cortisol affected memory in more than 2,200 healthy middle-aged people. For the study, researchers measured cortisol levels in the blood, compared them to the participants’ scores on tests of memory and visual perception, and levels of gray matter in the brain as measured by brain scans (gray matter is where the brain processes information). They found that people, especially women, who had higher levels of cortisol over time had poorer memory and performed worse on cognitive tests. Over time, it was also shown that they had less gray matter in some parts of the brain.
Cortisol wreaks havoc elsewhere in the body, too. Worthington explains that it affects the immune system on a cellular level, which means it can do widespread damage to all parts of the body that the immune system touches in unexpected ways. “It can disrupt everything from your sexual and reproductive systems to your digestive system to your ability to fight off illness and fatigue,” says Worthington.
Related: How stress affects your body, from your brain to your digestive system
2. Forgiveness activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is good news for your heart
According to Worthington, tolerance also affects the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing breathing and heart rate and increasing digestion. It’s also known as the “rest and digest” response (control of normal bodily functions) – or the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response (which prepares the body for more strenuous physical activity).
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together, so your body can regulate things like your blood pressure and heart rate, working the way it should in stressful situations and non-stressful moments. But when a person is under chronic stress — which can happen when someone holds onto anger — the body may be in the fight-or-flight response for a long time.
“The parasympathetic nervous system is the calming part of the nervous system, so it turns off overexcitation in certain areas,” says Worthington. Anything a person can do to calm themselves when enduring a lot of stress activates the parasympathetic nervous system in this way (including practicing forgiveness), and it can be good for the mind and body because it makes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems more balanced.
There is research indicating that these effects may be significant in terms of affecting health outcomes, such as cardiovascular function.
In a meta-analysis, researchers found that anger and hostility are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, as well as poorer outcomes for people who already have it.
Another study examined tolerance as a predictor of mortality, and found a statistically significant relationship. The authors note that tolerance of others was associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality during the study period.
3. Forgiveness helps you ruminate less (which helps reduce the risk of mental disorders)
According to Worthington, the act of not or refusing to forgive someone is always marked by rumination, or playing over and over in the mind.
“We all think about rumination, but the way we reflect is kind of odd. Some people do it angrily, some people ruminate hopelessly or feel depressed. Others do it anxiously,” Worthington says. And if rumination becomes habitual, it can lead to anxiety disorders. Psychological.
“Rumining is the bad boy of mental health,” Worthington adds.
Depending on your type of rumination (whether you do it in a way that generates hopelessness, depression, anxiety, or other feelings), these invasive, repetitive thoughts can eventually cause anger disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or psychosomatic disorders, where stress and anxiety cause physical disturbances such as stomachaches or migraines.
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According to a study of more than 1,800 black adults, black women were more likely than black men to experience more stressful life events and to engage in rumination, which caused a steady increase in high blood pressure over the 13 years the individuals were followed for the study.
“When people are able to forgive, they’re still somewhat emboldened, but they’re able to let go of a lot of that bitterness and anger,” Worthington says. “Forgiveness does not eliminate rumination, but it can reduce its toxicity.”
With additional reporting by Angela Haupt.