Why Forgiveness Plays a Huge Role in Stress Reduction
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Forgiveness is a conscious and deliberate decision to pardon someone who has harmed or adversely affected you. It doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or excusing offenses. It’s about liberating yourself from anger and negative feelings, and achieving peace of mind.
Stress is often caused by the actions of others. A customer demands a full refund for a purchase without a valid explanation. An employee reneges on a commitment to help with a project. Your sales manager tells you at the last minute that he can’t complete a business proposal, forcing you to work all weekend to finish it.
Afterward, you feel bitter. You hold a grudge. It’s difficult to let go of these feelings, and your stress levels often go into overdrive as a result. One study found that when people held on to a grudge, they experienced heightened physiological activity, including muscle tension, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and even sweating, compared to when they forgave. Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, the lead researcher for the study, explained, “When people think about their offenders in unforgiving ways, they tend to experience stronger negative emotions and greater stress responses. In contrast, when these same people think about their offenders in more forgiving ways, they tend to experience great positive emotion, greater perceived control, and less potent negative emotion and stress in the short term.”
How often do you forgive others? Forgiveness isn’t for the faint of heart -- it’s difficult and unnatural. It’s important to note that forgiveness doesn’t mean you would allow the person to cross you again. A frequently quoted Gallup poll found that 94 percent of people said it’s important to forgive, but only 48 percent said they usually attempted to forgive others.
When people do decide to forgive, many practice conditional forgiveness, pledging to forgive only if the offender apologizes or promises not to commit the offense again. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that people who practice conditional forgiveness may be more likely to die earlier than those who are less likely to engage in the practice.
How forgiving are you? Answer the following statements according to whether they are true or false:
- When someone upsets me, I tend to keep as much distance as possible.
- When someone hurts me, I want to see them pay.
- When an otherwise reliable person lets me down, I’m unlikely to forgive them quickly.
- I’ve held a grudge against someone for more than a year.
The more statements you answered as true, the less naturally forgiveness comes to you.
Leaders often find forgiveness difficult, viewing it as a sign of weakness or frailty. But forgiveness is essential to stress recovery and prevention. It can even offset some of the long-term effects of chronic stress. One study found that when individuals are highly forgiving of both themselves and others, it virtually eliminated the link between stress and mental illness. The study’s author, Loren Toussaint, explained, “If you don’t have forgiving tendencies, you feel the raw effects of stress in an unmitigated way. You don’t have a buffer against that stress.”
When was the last time you forgave someone? Sixty-two percent of Americans say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives, according to a survey by the Fetzer Institute. It’s not difficult to understand why. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are so many benefits associated with forgiveness, including lower stress levels, improved mental health, lower levels of anxiety and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, and higher self-esteem.
Do you wish you were better at forgiving? An important first step is to show empathy toward your offender. This involves shifting your perspective. You can also improve your ability to forgive by managing your emotions. Research has shown that your ability to manage and repair your emotions makes you more likely to forgive.