The Power of Forgiveness and Your Health

We all know the anger and frustration of being wronged. It would be difficult to get through life without encountering someone or a situation that injured or misused you in one way or another. You might have been wronged at the workplace, or by a partner, someone in your family or in your circle of friends. You could be wronged by a complete stranger at a store or driving on the freeway. The emotional range can be annoyance from a minor slight to relationship-ending betrayal. On some occasions, a workplace mistake or violation can lead to serious injury or death.

Over the last thirty years, scientists and researchers have been exploring in great detail the physical effects of holding onto anger. Beginning in the 1990s, the Campaign for Forgiveness Research enlisted doctors and other scientific researchers to examine the effects that forgiveness and forgiveness therapy had on patients. Carrying anger and rage affects the stress centers of the brain, and can fuel anxiety and, in some cases, slow the process of physical healing or have other long-term effects on your health.

Feeling anger is a natural response to being wronged. In a 2000 study in Italy by Dr. Pietro Pietrini, research revealed through an fMRI study that feeling anger and a desire to seek vengeance showed high activity in the amygdala, one of the oldest and most primitive sections of the brain. The study also showed that anger and rage actually inhibit rational thinking, impeding reason.

However, and remarkably, the study also revealed that tasks involving the forgiveness process activate more recently evolved parts of the brain, which deal with morality, problem-solving, empathy, and cognitive control of emotions.

Famously, the research of Dr. Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came up with a four-part model for forgiveness to employ through therapist-patient dialogue:

  • Uncovering your anger—Examine how you’ve avoided and dealt with anger, how carrying that anger and the memory of the offense has changed your worldview, your health, and life in general.
  • Deciding to forgive—Learn what forgiveness is and what it is not, acknowledge the ways in which your reaction has not benefited you, and make an intention to forgive.
  • Working on forgiveness—Confront any pain the offense has caused and allow yourself to experience it. Then, work toward developing a level of compassion and understanding for the offender.
  • Discover and release from emotional prison—Acknowledge that you are not the only one to have suffered and that you are not alone in your suffering. Examine what meaning your suffering may have for your life, and then take action on whatever you decide to be your life’s purpose.

This complex process is what helps to activate the morality centers of your brain, those more recently evolved portions that give you cognitive control. When this brain center is tapped, you can inhibit impulsive actions fueled by the feelings of rage and hatred toward an offender. This can be done through thought; if someone cuts you off on the road, perhaps imagine that he or she is rushing to the aid of a loved one. Devising a new and less-upsetting interpretation of the event can depersonalize the offense, diminishing the way it affects you in the long run—a process called “reframing.” Part of the purpose of reframing is to empathize with the offender, making it more difficult to blame or demonize the person, and thus no longer holding onto the same high levels of resentment that can be harmful to your own health. If empathy is difficult, reframing can also entail finding a constructive view of the offense and the suffering it caused you—what you can learn from it or how it might introduce a new opportunity into your life.

In a different experiment, Dr. Pietrini found that during an fMRI study, when asking patients to feel anger and then forgiveness, a third part of the brain was involved—the part that mediates the perception and suppression of moral pain. In his study, he described his findings as evidence that forgiveness evolved as a way to overcome pain and alleviate suffering, a sort of moral painkiller. If the brain has evolved in such a way, it provides evidence that forgiveness may be more than a mere coping mechanism and play a role in human survival. Just as the old quote says: “Resentment is like taking a poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Releasing anger and resentment through forgiveness is a process, and in some cases is difficult to deal with alone. To inquire more about the anger and stress connection and how it may be affecting your life, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website www.pfeifferphd.com.

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