Can Forgiveness Save Your Health?

Can Forgiveness Save Your Health?

Life provides the opportunity to see, do and experience so many wonderful things. We watch the unbridled energy and innocence of our grandbabies as they go through the new phases of their lives. I still won’t let Paul wipe off their little hand (paw) prints from our doors and windows as it reminds me of all they represent.

As difficult as it is for us to accept, these little, innocent grandbabies will be hurt by many people throughout their lives. It might be their sibling that calls them “stupid” or the friend who stole their girlfriend or boyfriend. And of course, you and I are not immune. A simple spat with your spouse or long-held resentment toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict can go deeper than you may realize—it may also be affecting your physical health.

Did you know that “forgiveness”, “forgive”, and “forgiven” have been mentioned well over 100 times in the King James Version of the Bible? Science has finally started to catch on giving the topic of forgiveness the attention it deserves completing several thousand studies since 1997.

The good news: Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.

“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,”

says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.

Current research supports the notion that forgiveness, as opposed to unforgiveness, affects psychological, physical, and relational health in overridingly beneficial ways. More specifically, forgiveness, and/or the moderation of unforgiveness, is associated with the exhibition of positive affect (e.g., sympathy, empathy, and optimism), improved self-esteem, higher life satisfaction, and better mental health ratings.

  • Individuals who exhibit more forgiveness and less vengeance experience less depression and boast higher life satisfaction. Generally, other studies support the idea that forgiveness is related to less rumination (hostility, anger, bitterness) (Ysseldyk, Matheson, and Anisman, 2007).
  • Forgiveness has also been associated with the exhibition of various positive emotions and attributes (i.e., sympathy, empathy, compassion, love, secure attachment), as well as higher rates of well-being (Fisher & Exline, 2006; Macaskill, 2012; Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
  • Individuals who are regarded as forgiving or as having offered forgiveness, tend to score higher on scales of altruism, spirituality, and social and interpersonal skills, and report higher relational satisfaction (Lawler et al., 2005). Furthermore, scholars have demonstrated that certain forms of forgiveness, like forgiveness of others, appear to correlate to age, offering age-related health protection in psychologically beneficial ways (i.e., less psychological distress, better life satisfaction, and better self-rated health) (Toussaint, Williams, Musick, & Everson, 2001).
  • It appears that as individuals get older they are more likely to forgive, and, in turn, that likelihood appears to buffer them from poor mental health effects common to aging populations (e.g., loneliness, hopelessness, and depression) (Silton, Flannelly, & Lutjen, 2013).
Cardiovascular health is by far the most commonly measured aspect of physical health related to forgiveness

Cardiovascular health is by far the most commonly measured aspect of physical health related to forgiveness. Scholars employ more medical tests indicative of heart health and cardiovascular functioning than any others, including blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, heart rate and myocardial oxygen consumption (Brenneis, 2002, Fincham, May, & Sanchez-Gonzalez, 2015; Lawler et al., 2003; Lawler-Row et al., 2011; Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001).

Several trends are apparent in the observed physical responses associated with forgiveness:

  • Recalling forgiving responses and/or imagining forgiving responses is generally associated with lower heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, and better outcomes related to physical stress responses (e.g., reduced cortisol levels, sweat responses, facial muscle contractions) (Fincham, May, & Sanchez-Gonzalez, 2015; Friedberg et al., 2009; Lawler et al., 2003; Lawler-Row et al., 2007; May, Sanchez-Gonzalez, Hawkins, Batchelor, & Fincham, 2014; Whited, Wheat, & Larkin, 2010; Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001).
  • These outcomes indicate that forgiveness functionally disrupts unhealthy physiological reactions to offenses and restores bio-regulation among various systems. Beyond these health implications, some scholars have also provided evidence that forgiveness may reduce future health risks for individuals who are currently experiencing coronary artery disease (Friedberg, Suchday, & Shelov, 2007; Friedberg, Suchday, & Srinivas, 2009). Generally, forgiveness appears to reconcile unhealthy responses, and may also buffer against additional health risks.

It appears that trait forgiveness, versus state forgiveness, yields stronger positive physical health effects (Lawler-Row et al., 2007; Lawler et al., 2003; May et al., 2014). Researchers have found that individuals who have a general disposition for forgiving exhibit improved physiological reactions to stress by way of better circulation and cardiovascular functioning (Friedberg, Suchday, & Shelov, 2007; Lawler et al., 2003). This point is further evidenced in studies where dispositional forgiving individuals experience physical stress responses (e.g., elevated blood pressure, heart rate) when they recall or imagine episodic unforgiving responses (Brenneis,2002; Lawler et al., 2003), though they appear to still fare physically better than consistently unforgiving individuals (May et al., 2014). Still, both trait and state forgiveness have been connected to fewer physical symptoms.

The bulk of evidence supporting the connection between forgiveness and physiology does so by correlating measures of forgiveness to self-reported medical status and health behaviors. Participants often report acute and chronic medical conditions; pain levels; use of alcohol, medication, and illicit drugs; medical procedure recovery rates; sleep quality; and body mass index (BMI).

Also, notable in the literature on forgiveness and physical health effects are demographic differences for health based on age, sex, and socioeconomic status (e.g., neighborhood). One study by Fincham, May, and Sanchez-Gonzalez (2015) noted that dispositionally forgiving men may reap more cardiovascular protective benefits from forgiving their spouses than do their wives. This finding poses interesting implications for other related forgiveness research that has demonstrated that women more often exhibit forgiveness in their marriages, yet their physical health is not seemingly boosted for doing so (Orathinkal, Vansteenwegen, & Burggraeve, 2008).

Several studies have also demonstrated connections between forgiveness and health behavior. It appears that individuals who exhibit forgiving tendencies also tend to maintain better and less risky health behaviors including less smoking (McFarland, Smith, Toussaint, & Thomas, 2012), alcohol use, medication and/or drug use (Lawler-Row et al., 2007, 2005; Webb, Hirsch, & Tousssaint, 2011), and better sleep quality, resulting from reductions of resentment and ruminations (Stoia-Caraballo et al., 2008; Lawler et al., 2005). Implications of this research suggest that a portion of the health-promoting effects of forgiveness may be associated with health behaviors noted for lower morbidity and mortality rates.

certain researchers contend that self-forgiveness may have an even more  significant impact on health behavior than interpersonal forgiveness

Finally, certain researchers contend that self-forgiveness may have an even more significant impact on health behavior than interpersonal forgiveness (Svalina & Webb, 2012). When individuals are able to forgive themselves they report less physical complaints, less risky health behaviors (e.g., alcohol abuse or use) and have a slightly lower mortality risk (among more educated populations) (Krause & Hayward, 2013; Webb et al., 2010, 2013). Contrary to these findings, however, one study found that self-forgiveness can function negatively when individuals forgive themselves for chronic unhealthy behaviors like smoking, effectively undermining their motivation to stop smoking (Wohl & Thompson, 2011).

In stark contrast to the “Turn the Other Cheek,” philosophy, people today, don’t get mad, they get even…so they say. The truth however, isn’t quite so cliché.
The evidence is crystal clear. If you have a forgiving disposition, then you are on the right road to health. If you don’t learn to be more forgiving, you will not only have consequences in your spiritual walk as the Bible so clearly says, but you will also find that your health cannot improve, no matter how many juices and supplements you are taking.

Next week, we will discuss the questions: “Can You Learn to Be More Forgiving?” “How Do You Make Forgiveness a Greater Part of Your Life?” And, “Is There a Process to Forgiving?” Anytime we counsel people who have cancer, we always discuss with them how they must look into themselves and begin the process of forgiveness. As the top Toxicologist in the country has stated,

“Anyone who has cancer, has to learn to forgive!”

Stay tuned, this may be the pivotal point in your healing that will turn the corner to greater health!

As the incomparable Christian musician, Matthew West wrote:

It’s the hardest thing to give away
And the last thing on your mind today
It always goes to those who don’t deserve
It’s the opposite of how you feel
When they pain they caused is just too real
Takes everything you have to say the word

Forgiveness, forgiveness

It flies in the face of all your pride
It moves away the mad inside
It’s always anger’s own worst enemy
Even when the jury and the judge
Say you’ve got a right to hold a grudge
It’s the whisper in your ear saying set it free

Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness

Show me how to love the unlovable
Show me how to reach the unreachable
Help me now to do the impossible
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Help me now to do the impossible


It’ll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what its power can do
So let it go and be amazed by what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you

Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness

Show me how to love the unlovable
Show me how to reach the unreachable
Help me now to do the impossible


I want finally to set it free
Show me how to see what your mercy sees
Help me now to give what You gave to me

Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness

Written by Matthew West, Matthew Joseph West • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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