Traditional Western medicine treats symptoms. If we are depressed, we take a pill. If we are having panic attacks, we take another pill. If we have aches and pains, we get pain relievers or muscle relaxants. The truth is that stress causes many of our health problems. At the same time, we have to remember that when we talk about stress as a negative symptom, short bursts of stress can be extremely helpful and useful as a motivator to get things done, and therefore can be regarded as positive.
So what causes the negative stress that is not good for our health? Some obvious examples are feeling threatened, fearful, or being under pressure. However, a significant cause of long-term stress is living with persistent thoughts and feelings of frustration, anger, guilt, hurt, or resentment. These feelings may be so pervasive that we regard them as a normal and immutable part of our lives. But holding onto these feelings, not being able to let go, release, or feel compassion for ourselves or another, may create adverse reactions in our bodies that can result in dis-ease. So, yes, it’s true: long-term lack of forgiveness causes long-term stress which can turn into chronic illness.
There are many studies over the past 10 years that support this conclusion. For example, Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention found the following: “when you hold onto bitterness for years, it stops you from living life fully. As it turns out, it wears out your immune system and hurts your heart.”
What happens when we are negatively stressed out is that the brain tells the adrenals to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a natural pain reliever. It reduces inflammation so it feels good, at first. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” hormone. When your body releases cortisol, you are in a state of heightened alert, which is helpful when you are in trouble. However, it is harmful when it is released over a prolonged period of time. When your body is in “fight or flight” mode, your immune system literally shuts down!
For example, Don Colbert, in his book, Deadly Emotions, says that when chronic anger is present, the body has a steady drip of the hormone cortisol. This excessive presence of cortisol can cause the immune system to become confused and to attack itself, causing autoimmune diseases. Increased levels of cortisol can also contribute to diabetes, weight gain, bone loss, impaired memory and other health problems. But in counterpoint, the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology found that forgiveness lowers the stress hormone of cortisol, and therefore the immune system is boosted. So, that apple of forgiveness really does seem to work.
#1: Get control over your thoughts
Unfortunately, many of us obsess over how someone hurt us or worse yet, we literally beat ourselves up when we’ve done something we feel guilt or shame over. When these unhealthy thoughts are repeated over and over again, they become our beliefs. In other words, they become WHO we are rather than what we think. As we become our thoughts, they become ingrained in our physicality. Thoughts can be as acidic as the foods we eat. Remember that a thought is just a thought; it is not necessarily the truth.
#2: Become more flexible with your thoughts
People who are inflexible in their thoughts have more trouble forgiving than their more flexible counterparts. This right/wrong way of thinking keeps you playing the blame game. And as long as you are pointing your finger at someone else and feeling a righteous sense of indignation, you can’t forgive. This is because you believe that forgiveness is inherently connected to the person who hurt you. This is a false belief. Forgiveness has everything to do with YOU. It is a gift to yourself, to feel more peace in your life.
#3: Let go of stress on a regular basis
The good news is that we know that there are ways to deal with stress, and research supports these life-style changes, such as meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise, being out in nature, getting regular massages, increasing your sexual activity, smiling more, having a regular gratitude practice, praying, counseling, participating in a spiritual group, and working with a coach to live a happier, more passion-filled life. One of my favorite stress relievers is to laugh with girlfriends. Many people wait until one of the 3 D’s hits them: Death of a loved one, Disease, or Divorce. Prevention is way better than waiting for one of the three D’s to be your WAKE-UP call.
#4: Let go of past grudges
If the past is following you into your future, you need to let it go. There is no research that says anyone benefits from living in the past, or holding onto grudges. Likewise, beating yourself up for something you did in the past is a waste of time. If there is something you did, apologize, make amends the best you can, and let yourself off the hook. If someone did something to hurt you, remember that you holding onto the hurt, anger, bitterness is hurting you, not them.
As Marianne Williamson tells us: “The past is over. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we came from, what Mommy said, what Daddy did, what mistakes were made, what diseases we have or how depressed we feel. The future can be reprogrammed at this moment.”
I know, sometimes it feels like you’ve forgiven and then BOOM! Something happens that triggers you right back to that same hurt or anger. Realize and accept that this is the onion phenomenon – you just have another layer to deal with. If you are in a situation where you can’t forgive because the offender keeps re-offending you, there are resources available that can help.
#5: Build your forgiveness muscle
Research also supports the fact that forgiveness reduces stress and when practiced, is a factor for staying healthy. For example, the Forgiveness Project, in cooperation with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, has stated that cancer, and other life-altering diseases, can benefit from forgiveness. Many patients live in a state of chronic ‘unforgiveness—a holding onto anger, hate and resentment. When that is released, researchers found that immune systems are enhanced.
So if we know that forgiveness actually increases health, why are people reticent to forgive?
Oftentimes people do not want to forgive because they believe one of these common myths or mis-perceptions about forgiveness:
• You will let the offender off the hook if you forgive.
• It would mean you somehow agree with or condone their
• It would mean you have to
trust that person again.
• It means you must have a
relationship with that person.
• It means that you are weak.
But once you decide to practice “living with forgiveness” it will be easier to release and let go on a regular basis. You will find that you do not get as caught up in the trauma-drama of your friends and family. Things that might have made you angry will suddenly not be a big deal. In other words, you will find more peace in your life.
Only you can decide if you are willing to let go of your emotional baggage and grudges from the past. If you believe that your thoughts create your reality, why would you allow hurtful, harmful thoughts to reside within? My clients tell me they do believe that thoughts create their reality, and I often respond, “Yes, but what if you REALLY believed it? What if you believed it whole heartedly, not just intellectually? How would your life be different?”
I leave you with this final question: How can your forgiveness practice be your daily apple?