Why Learning to Forgive is Crucial for Your Heart and Health

By Guest Contributor Gloria Arenson, Marriage and Family Therapist

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Did you know that unforgiveness causes you stress and can affect your health? Every time we think of those who have transgressed against us, our body responds. Blood pressure and heart rates go up. Facial muscles tense and stress hormones rise. Chronic stress may also affect the immune and cardiovascular systems.

On the other hand, forgiveness reduces stress by replacing negative emotions with positive ones. Some research suggests that when married partners don’t forgive each other for past hurts, they are less able to manage conflict in the present. Apparently adults who can’t forgive their parents for mistakes may unconsciously transfer their anger to their spouses!

Scientific studies link the act of and benefits from forgiveness with reduced blood pressure and stress hormone levels, less pain, reduced depression and anger, relief in sufferers of chronic back pain, fewer relapses in women in substance abuse programs, as well as fewer symptoms of depression and stress.

Although forgiveness is an act that will help you heal, have you ever said, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget!” Would you rather carry around grudges, unwilling to write them off until you have the love, apology, caring, or approval you think is owed to you? When you act this way, you hurt your emotional health by constantly reminding yourself of how others have failed you and what they owe you. I used to feel at a loss as to what to say that would help my clients learn how to forgive until I read Dr. Gerald Jampolsky’s advice. This renowned psychiatrist suggested:

“Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.”

The past is past, yet you may be driving yourself into despair and anger because you can’t undo what was done “back then”. You keep those wounds open because it validates your feelings when others notice how you martyr yourself. Try to become aware of how much energy it takes to keep your anger going, and how it depletes you. Think about how good and how light you will feel when you release the other person from your frustration.

If you aren’t sure that you are ready to let go of your unforgiveness, try this simple acupressure mindfulness method. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down. Place one hand over your forehead. Cup the back of your head just above the neck (called the occipital area) with your other hand. Put light pressure on these two areas. Focus on one of these thoughts at a time:

I am not sure that I want to forgive _________ (name of person) for __________ (his/her transgression).

Perhaps I am not ready to forgive because I get something out of continuing to hold on to my ________ (anger, hurt, depression).

Relax and let go as you think. Remain in this position until you feel finished. Some people experience a sense of total let-go, a kind of shift of your energy. Others start to have thoughts or memories about the situation. If that happens, flow with it and watch it until you reach a place of understanding and acceptance that, indeed, it is over and time for you to get on with your life. You may feel completion after one minute, five minutes, or more. Each of us processes at our own rate, so don’t push yourself. Relax and observe the process.

Once you are ready to forgive, make a list of people in your life, past and present, who have not lived up to your expectations, or those you are still angry with. For each name, write the specific deed or situation that you have not forgotten or forgiven. When you are ready to let go of the old grudges, choose one name at a time and practice the mindfulness approach. As you feel finished with your grudge against each one, put both hands over your heart and say one of the following affirmative statements followed by three deep breaths. Once you feel at peace, move on to the next one on your list.

Even though I have not been able to forgive you for ____________, what happened is over and I can’t go back in time and relive it the way I wish it had happened. I am choosing to let it be history and get on with my life.

Even though I have not been able to forgive you for ____________, what happened is over and I can’t go back in time and relive it the way I wish it had happened. It is over and I am ready to allow a scar to form over that memory. So although I remember it, I feel no pain or anger about it.

Here’s an example of the power of forgiveness: after Jill released her former husband because he hadn’t paid child support for five years, she felt renewed. A week later, he called and told her that conditions were suddenly improving in his life. She explained that she had just let go of her anger toward him. He said, “Your hold on me was very great!” He also began to pay child support.

Your final task is for you to forgive yourself. Write down all your misdemeanors. What are your major faults or sins? Have you ever noticed that in our society, even murderers can get out of prison on parole after serving their sentence? Yet you may believe that you have committed such awful crimes against others you deserve lifelong purgatory! Look at your list of offenses toward yourself and others.

Think of the person you love most in the world. If this were his or her list, could you forgive him or her? Make a special time for your personal forgiveness ceremony. Use the two methods you have just learned to go through your list. For each item say:

Even though ___________(name) is unwilling to forgive me for ___________ and I don’t blame him or her for holding a grudge against me, I am ready to apologize and to forgive myself for my behavior.

After you have addressed each of your wrongdoings, read each item on your list and announce out loud that you forgive yourself. In the following days you may notice that you feel less stress and more at peace.

More at YourTango:

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This article was originally published on YourTango: How to practice forgiveness for a healthier life

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