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The Healing Science of Forgiveness

" Do you ever feel used, offended, mistreated or hurt by another person? Ever want to get angry, strike back, or get even? You are very clearly not alone. Look around you. The desire for revenge is very strong in the world today. Science is searching for the motivation behind this primal yet destructive urge.Recent brain-imaging research shows that humans experience a significant amount of satisfaction or pleasure in revenge. It’s disturbing, but nonetheless true. Punishing others for perceived bad behaviors or offenses, gives a “sweet” feeling. When people were asked to imagine themselves committing acts of revenge against perceived offenders, brain images would “light up” in the Dorsal Striatum, a pleasure center, the same pleasure center that delights in food, drugs, or sex. This reaction is controlled by the amygdala (instinctual awareness and instinctual reactivity) and the limbic brain (emotional, non-rational portion of the brain) not the cerebral (rational, “thinking”) brain.Despite its highly emotional tendencies, the desire to correct offense is not always irrational. Human behaviorists believe the satisfaction derived from punishing bad behavior has an altruistic function. Humans live in large societies composed of many nonfamily members that must work together to make a civilization function. The feelings of satisfaction derived from seeing an offender penalized inspires cooperation among strangers. This is the basis of justice.While justice may be beneficial to mankind, holding grudges and revenge is the healthy need for justice made irrational and emotional. Holding a grudge is really a commitment to remain angry or at least to resume anger periodically. Grudges are characterized by negativity, blame, anger, and hostility. All highly undesirable emotions with little real benefit to the one who feels them. Revenge is defined as harm done to someone as a punishment for harm they have done to you. The real problem with revenge is that, like drugs, it cannot be easily satisfied. Revenge breeds more revenge. The more the brain is activated by the anticipation of revenge, the more willing that individual is to engage in vengeful activities. It is a quick, cheap feeling of triumph and self-gratification. Again, like drugs, the pleasant feelings offered by revenge never last, but the damage caused is devastating to everyone involved, but most especially to the one holding the grudge.The big question then is- what damage? Does revenge and un-forgiveness affect our physiology, health and well-being?As previously established, people live together in societies. For these societies to function, people develop intersocial relationships. These relationships are often flawed by offenses both inadvertent and intentional. The reactions to these offenses have a deep influence on health physically, especially the heart, sympathetic nervous system (SNS), endocrine, and immune systems.In a recent study, people were asked to think of someone who had hurt, mistreated, or offended them. As each question was asked, the person’s vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and sweat gland activity were monitored. The results were pretty amazing. As people recalled a grudge, offense or wrong their vital signs went up- blood pressure and heart rate increased and stress levels went up.One theory suggests that holding grudges affects health through allostasis. This adaptation allows for "maintaining stability through change". Allostatic loading involves changes to body systems that allow people to survive the demands of internal and external stress. The primary hormones of the stress response, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), potentially have both protective and damaging effects. In immediate situations, allostatic loading is essential for adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival. As an example, this reaction would give someone in a dangerous situation the strength necessary to run quickly. However, when called upon frequently, allostatic loading can accelerate disease processes. The effects of chronic allostatic loading can be seen as chemical imbalances in autonomic nervous system, central nervous system, neuroendocrine, and immune system as well as disturbances in the sleep/wake rhythms, and, in some cases, changes to brain structures. If the theory that anger, resentment, and unforgiving causes continual allostatic loading is correct, and there is quite a bit of evidence that it may be, holding grudges will literally destroy you.Compare this to those who were able to forgive and relinquish blame. Those who were able empathize with their offender were actually able to reverse the negative effects of anger. Empathy is the mediator for forgiveness. Empathy is the ability to find the humanity in the offender (instead of defining the offender solely by their action) and seeking to understand the factors that led to the action. This type of activity has been shown to:
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve immune response
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Improve your sleep
  • Improve self-esteem and sense of empowerment
  • More rewarding relationships, both professionally and personally
  • Reduce stress
  • Relieve negative emotions
  • Relinquish negative patterns of behavior
  • Increase healing and energy
When people feel positive emotion toward those that offend, they experience healthy physical function. The more positive the emotion, the better the physical response. Sincere apology and restitution from the offending party can increase to benefits of forgiveness. Conversely, insincere apology and incomplete restitution may exasperate the original negativity. However, the health benefits of forgiveness are independent of the offending party’s actions. The ability to forgive promotes healthy levels of hormones and decreases physical stress; apologies can only augment those benefits. True forgiveness has to be personal and independent of the actions of others.“When you’re able to forgive the wrong-doing of another, what happens inside you is physically quite powerful,” says Vineeth John, MD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. Dr. John says that when we forgive, we let go of our anger and revenge toward this person or event, and it calms down the autonomic nervous system. By forgiving and letting go, your body stops flooding itself with the cortisol and other bio-chemicals that disrupt your digestion and suppress your immune system. By forgiving and letting go you can calm down you nervous system, slow down your heart rate, keep your intestines from spasms, and you get a good night’s sleep.Forgiveness is being recognized by physiologist and scientists as a tool to move us beyond the negative emotions, and toward positive feelings which set up a healing state within the body.Science has set out to prove the knowledge of the ages. Forgiveness can set up an environment that will heal our mind, body and spirit.To err is human; to forgive, divine. - Alexander Pope/"

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