Forgive to Live

Still holding grudges? Check your pulse: research suggests that harboring feelings of betrayal may be linked to high blood pressure which can ultimately lead to stroke, kidney or heart failure, or even death.

In a study exploring the effect of having a forgiving personality on both psychological and physical stress responses, University of Tennessee (UT) students discussed two betrayal experiences—by a parent and by a friend or romantic partner. As they spoke, researchers measured their blood pressure, heart rate, forehead muscle tension and skin conduction responses. The results, presented at the 2000 American Psychosomatic Society Annual Meeting, showed that "high" forgivers—those who forgive easily—had both a lower resting blood pressure and smaller increases in blood pressure rate than "low" forgivers—bigger grudge-holders.

Talking about betrayal can make anyone's blood boil, says Kathleen Lawler, head researcher and psychology professor at UT, but forgiving transgressions appears to promote better overall health: High forgivers reported fewer physician visits for physical ailments. "Forgiveness might enhance health by reducing the excessive physiological burden that comes with unresolved stressful experiences, like the hurt and offense attributed to others," she explained.

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Forgiveness requires good social skills, she adds. High forgivers seemed more empathetic and warm, expressing more positive emotions toward others—including those who hurt them. "Some people seem to have better skills for maintaining satisfying relationships, and one of those skills is forgiveness," said Lawler. If so, then building social skills like empathy and communication may facilitate forgiveness.

For more begrudging types, Lawler suggests taking a few crucial steps to facilitate forgiveness:

  • Face the pain. Experience the emotions that betrayal generates rather than deny or avoid them.
  • Put yourself in the wrongdoer's shoes to better understand what motivated his/her actions and to build empathy skills.
  • Choose to forgive. Muster all of your strength to let go of an offense so you can move on.

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