We’ve all been hurt, no matter how big or small, and we’ve all been faced with the decision to forgive. What we do with that choice can drastically change our future, our perceptions, and our physical and emotional health.
Holding a grudge has obvious emotional ramifications, but did you know withholding forgiveness has serious physical consequences as well? What if I told you bitterness may be hindering your weight loss- and actually contributing to those newly added pounds? Isn’t that the worst? Someone hurt you and now they’re making your pants tighter and raising your blood pressure!? Not cool. Let’s discuss how extending forgiveness to people- whether or not they ask for it or deserve it– is one of the strongest, bravest, most awesomest, healthy things you can do… for YOU!
What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t
Before we get started, it’s important to make clear what forgiveness really is, and what it’s definitely not.
What Forgiveness Isn’t
Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation, or even having to confront the offending party at all. Forgiveness doesn’t condone or forget bad behavior, or even stop the pursuit of justice or pressing charges if necessary. It’s not telling others that it’s OK to treat you the way the offending party treated you, nor does it have anything to do with resigning your self-worth or your value. It’s also not staying in an unhealthy relationship or requiring you to trust someone who is untrustworthy. Forgiveness cannot be forced or required, and it is fully your choice and no one else’s.
What Forgiveness Is
Forgiveness is letting go: relinquishing feelings of revenge, releasing negative thoughts of bitterness or resentment, and pardoning someone from what you believe they owe you. Choosing to forgive is setting yourself free. It’s releasing yourself from that person or situation’s control over your life. It’s choosing your emotional and physical well-being over holding on to justified hurt. It’s a generous act of self-love.
In a Johns Hopkins study, researchers defined forgiveness as “an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.” Forgiveness puts you in control, which can help you move past the hurtful situation.
Forgiveness is something you do for you, when you’re ready. It can be a challenging process of acknowledging your hurts and emotions and working through them. Rarely is forgiveness a one and done or quick process, but something we practice and become better at over time.
Our Physical Response to Holding a Grudge
Research shows that when we direct our attention to a situation or person that we haven’t forgiven, our body initiates a stress response. A study at Berkley showed that even just recalling a grudge or past offense causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and facial muscle tension, as well as makes you sweat, experience negative emotions, and feelings of not being in control. Woah.
And don’t think that just because you’re not festering on the situation all day that your grudge isn’t harming your health. According to researchers Worthington and Scherer, unforgiveness as a “state which a person is confined to a stressful state of mind.” It’s affecting your physical responses and hormones, whether or not you’re currently thinking about it.
Long Term Physical Effects of Unforgiveness
Holding on to unforgiveness mimics a state of chronic anxiety. Our natural stress response is meant to help us react quickly (think fight or flight). It works like this: We perceive a threat and our stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) are released, our heart rate and blood pressure elevate, fat is released to be quickly used as energy, and our muscles tense up for a quick response. When there isn’t something to physically respond to and when this becomes the norm, it wreaks havoc on our health.
People who hold on to grudges report higher rates of the following than those who practice forgiveness:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- decreased immune function/high rate of sickness
- increased risk of heart disease and stroke
- chronic pain, muscle tension, and inflammation
- digestive problems
- trouble sleeping
- weight gain/trouble losing weight
- lowered metabolism
- high blood sugar
- memory loss/trouble forming new memories
- back problems
- lower life satisfaction
- shorter life span
Holding on to our justified hurts can also deteriorate brain tissue in areas responsible for self-control and emotions. The chronic stress response wears down your immune system, which makes you more susceptible to illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer. It will also just about guarantee a hormonal imbalance which can lead to many diseases and contribute to weight gain and emotional instability.
How Unforgiveness Can Trigger Weight Gain
Most of what we’re talking about is a direct effect of consistently high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. As we mentioned earlier, cortisol is released when we’re stressed, but chronically high levels promote weight gain in many ways.
Promotes Fat Storage
When cortisol is released into the blood, it releases free fatty acids for you to quickly use as energy. When you don’t use the fat, cortisol is kind enough ensure it’s deposited into your deep abdominal tissue. This belly fat is associated with many diseases, and it’s considered an “active tissue” that responds to stress by welcoming more fat. This belly fat also has special cortisol receptors- there are more in these fat cells than anywhere else on the body. Unforgiveness triggers a chronic stress response in our bodies, which promotes fat to be stored in the most dangerous and hardest to lose place in your body.
Increases Hunger and Cravings
Cortisol also tells your body to replenish your energy levels quickly- even if you didn’t do anything. This makes you hungry, crave unhealthy foods, and overeat. This “junk food” triggers the brain to release pleasure chemicals to decrease tension- which helps create or reinforce the cycle of food addiction and stress eating.
The cherry on top is excess cortisol breaks down your muscles and lowers your supply of muscle-building hormones. Muscle is awesome for many reasons, a big one is that increased muscle mass increases your metabolism, which helps fight weight gain. An interesting study from The Ohio State University noted that women who experienced stress within 24 hours of a large meal burned over 100 fewer calories, burned less fat, and had higher insulin levels than women who were not recently stressed. This would really add up over a year, not to mention increased insulin promotes fat storage and is linked with Type 2 Diabetes.
C’mon cortisol. Go home. You’re drunk. Should I even mention it enlarges the size of fat cells and helps baby fat cells grow up into adult ones? Probably not. Forget I said that….
You can see as we mentioned before, forgiveness is a gift to yourself. Holding on hurts you the most. You deserve to be free from whatever that person did or said, no matter how serious or trivial. And yes, you deserve to forgive yourself, too. Wrecking your health is not “punishment” for whatever wrong you did. I encourage you to seek peace.
Benefits of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process, it takes time, and it’s a way of life. Author John Bevere talks about building up your “forgiveness muscles,” which is such a great analogy. Some people are naturally more forgiving than others, and others were taught to hold on to grudges of all sizes for self-preservation. The good news is we all have the ability to forgive, it just might take some work. Even better news is that research suggests we get better at it over time! After reading the negative health effects of holding on to hurt, it’s obvious forgiving is worth the effort.
A study of 1500 older adults concluded those who regularly practice forgiveness report greater personal well-being, lower levels of depression, fewer physical health complaints, and increased life-satisfaction. Overall, unconditional forgiveness is associated with improved health (like lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate), and greater feelings of control, self-worth, and power. By forgiving, you take your health and life into your own hands instead of allowing a person or situation to control how you feel and act. It’s extremely empowering, and is considered great “medicine.”
Forgiveness is also associated with a decrease in chronic pain, improved cardiovascular function, decreased stress, stronger immune function, and increased energy. Forgiving people also perceive the world as less intimidating and perform better on physical tasks. Convinced yet?
Research is also revealing forgiving yourself might be even more powerful than forgiving someone else. Extend grace toward yourself. Having unrealistically high standards can create a toxic environment.
Ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged, and move to accept you made a mistake and will try to live with more integrity from here on out. You’re human. We all are. It doesn’t permit bad behavior, but understand you will make mistakes. No one is perfect. You only get one life; don’t spend it in emotional and physical turmoil over unforgiveness. And think of this when someone wrongs you- you have also made mistakes.
Forgiveness Makes you Lighter
In this fascinating study, Erasmus University and National University of Singapore graduate students were divided into three groups and asked to write about an experience. The first group wrote about when someone harmed them but they forgave. The second group wrote about an experience where someone harmed them and they hadn’t forgiven, and the third group wrote about a “recent interpersonal interaction” that didn’t require harm or forgiveness.
The three groups were then measured by the height of their jumps. The second group who wrote about holding a grudge jumped notably lower than the other two groups, suggesting that holding a grudge was “weighing them down.” The researchers elaborated by comparing holding a grudge to carrying a heavy burden, and this study suggests it’s both a mental and physical burden. Forgiveness can make a person feel lighter in many ways.
Forgiveness: Easier Said Than Done?
Forgiveness is a process, and sometimes it’s as daunting as a moment-by-moment, thought-by-thought activity. Here are some suggestions to make sure you stick it out:
- Don’t avoid– deal with the issue. Allow yourself to process it. Confront the person if necessary or write them a letter they will never receive.
- Counseling is very effective to help in the process of forgiving.
- Tell yourself you can and you will- believe it’s possible for you to let go. If you think it’s impossible then it will be.
- Empathize with the person- think about their side of the story, or imagine their childhood or events that led them to treat you the way they did. Empathizing can help you not take things as personally.
- Considering the person’s mental state at the time can also be helpful in extending empathy.
- Focus on loving yourself- extending forgiveness whether someone deserves it or not is the best thing you can do for yourself, and is a great gesture of self-love.
- Find stories of great forgiveness. They can inspire and help give you the courage to set yourself free.
- These stories of reconciliation from the Rwandan genocide inspire me beyond belief.
- Gripe/vent if needed- but don’t allow yourself to do for it too long or with too many people. Venting can be a part of processing, but it’s not the same as processing. Try to be aware of when it’s helpful and when it’s toxic.
- Find a way to be thankful for the experience. You grew; you learned a lot about yourself; now you can empathize with and help others who go through the same thing…
- Find help from Above- most major religions hold forgiveness as a virtue.
- For example, in Christianity Jesus extends forgiveness for our sins even though we are undeserving- believing you are pardoned by God makes it easier to extend forgiveness to others.
It’s important to say that all of the benefits mentioned are for unconditional forgiveness. An apology and making amends is wonderful, but if that is required for you to extend forgiveness then you will still be negatively affected by all of the toxic effects mentioned.
It takes time, and you need to do it when you’re ready. No one can force you to forgive. Don’t settle for cheap, fake forgiveness either. You deserve better.
My Two Cents
I had never considered myself an unforgiving person; I’ve always been intentional to work through any “bigger” offense. I recently read the book Bait of Satan by John Bevere and had my world rocked. I realized I was carrying around little grudges for minor offenses that had hurt my feelings. It was very eye opening.
I believe in Jesus and the forgiveness He offers so freely, and I can’t talk about my experience with forgiving or holding grudges without mentioning it. I prayed for realization of grudges and prayed for the strength to forgive people who have hurt me. My prayers have been answered, but it’s ongoing process. Some things are easier, and others I have to forgive moment-by-moment and strengthen those forgiveness muscles. The scripture Matthew 18:21-35 is something I go back to repeatedly when I feel justified to be angry with someone. Oh. My. Word. I should probably just read that every day…
I also work with women who carry around a lot of emotional baggage, and I believe practicing forgiveness can set them free, help with weight loss struggles, and restore peace. I see a lot of fake forgiveness, where people aren’t going through the work (and sometimes pain) of accepting and dealing with whatever transpired, and truly releasing that person (but saying they have). Your health is worth asking yourself if you’ve truly let go. And go and re-read the section on what forgiveness “is and is not” if you need to. Releasing that person (or yourself, or even God) is actually releasing YOU, and you are so worth it.
My passion is to help women attain health in every area of their lives. I created The Fit Tutor to be a positive influence on women and help them to have the resources needed to eat healthier, exercise, and live a better life. A membership includes support, encouragement, accountability, nutrition coaching, and online workouts for as little as $11.99/mo. Get help with controlling what you can- exercise and food- and get encouragement while you work through the rest. Life is hard and you don’t have to do it alone!
I believe in you!– Allison
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*And oh snap, there’s an affiliate link for the John Bevere book. I have bought it for so many people, I figured I could get a few cents if you decide to buy ;) – at no cost to you, of course! I highly recommend it!