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Forgiving Is Good for You

You don't have to minimize your pain to let it go.

Hurt, anger and disappointment take a toll on your mental health and body. But you may not be doomed to be fuming, wounded, or sick. Forgiveness is a kind of protection.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Health Psychology, even if your life has been especially rough, forgiveness can help put you on an even playing field with people who haven’t had as many troubles. The study was small, and doesn’t explain how forgiveness works to calm your body. But the message is hopeful, and if you find it empowering, I say, “Go with it!”

Researchers had 148 young adults fill out questionnaires that assessed their levels of lifetime stress, their tendency to forgive and their mental and physical health. People who had experienced more hard knocks had more health problems. However, study author Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, found that being highly forgiving erased the link between stress and illness.

This might be because forgiving people adopt better coping skills when they feel stressed, or their bodies may actually respond less to the negative event.

“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 affects your heart rate, blood pressure and immune response—and those bodily reactions feed into depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other illnesses.

If you have a tendency to hang on to grudges you can train yourself out of it, Swartz says. It’s your choice: do you want to dwell on hurts or try to see the good in others? You can take a quiz to assess your ability to forgive.

Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, and the co-author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, reports that after forgiveness training, depressive symptoms dropped 40 percent among a group Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland who had lost a family member in the violence there.

Forgiveness does not mean condoning, forgetting, or excusing bad behavior, or denying or minimizing your own feelings. It simply means that you don’t dwell on those feelings.

Forgiveness training can lower blood pressure in people who tend to anger, separate research shows. After training, “People report needing fewer medicines,” Schwartz says. “They report having better sleep. They report physically feeling better and having fewer physical complaints,”

Let’s say your husband had an affair. You don’t need to tote up a list of your husband’s good and bad deeds or qualities and decide that on balance he’s okay.

Instead, you can remember that he’s in charge of his behavior, and you are in charge of yours. You can let go of the pain—because that’s the person you want to be. You are likely to feel empathy and compassion filling the space the pain took up.

You might stop expressing your pain in order to keep the marriage going, maybe for financial or religious reasons or for the sake of children. But if you’re dwelling on anger and hurt inside, you aren't getting the full benefits of forgiving.

The core of religions of all kinds is compassion, and each tradition offers different methods. Prayer or a simple meditation can take the edge off. You can try a ritual: writing a letter to him expressing your hurt and anger, burning the letter, and writing another letter to him expressing forgiveness. You might give him the second letter, or not, but thinking out your own reasons for forgiving him will help protect you physically.

If you prefer speech to writing, you might express your forgiveness to a confidante, not necessarily your husband.

Don’t expect an apology or specific changes in him. You’re setting yourself up for more disappointment and hurt. You will also need to forgive yourself. Thoughts like “How did I pick this creep?” or “He did it because I’m fat,” are hard on your body, too.

Forgiveness does not mean the relationship won’t change. You can forgive him and also leave him, because the relationship isn’t working well. That’s very different than leaving him carrying around the feeling that the man you loved was "really" or "became" a monster.

The key is where you let your mind go. Negative thoughts make your body tense, and that tension, Swartz explains, will “spill over into your thoughts about lots of other relationships. Can you trust people?”

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