Best Medicine: The Power of Forgiving

Healing emotional wounds doesn't just make you feel better. New research shows there are also surprising health benefits.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2004

The Best Way to Heal a Heart

Elizabeth Nassau was stunned. She had called a good friend to wish her a happy birthday, when suddenly she found herself under attack. “Out of the blue, she launched into a long list of everything that bothered her about me, and dumped me over the phone,” says the 48-year-old writer from Philadelphia.

Nassau blames jealousy: “My career was just starting to get off the ground. My book was about to be published, and I’d won an award for my essays. I felt my friend didn’t like it that I wasn’t so needy anymore.”

She spent two years fuming. “Every time I saw her, my blood boiled, my heart pounded and I’d get so tense that I literally felt sick.”

Who hasn’t felt the sting of betrayal, unfair treatment or something more abusive? Many of us cling to the resulting rage and pain, but others choose not to. The latest research shows that learning to forgive those who hurt us can have profound benefits. It’s become a hot new way to manage anger, cut stress and, maybe most important, improve health.

At an Atlanta conference last fall, some 40 researchers met to review what they’re finding in probing the healing power of making peace. One study showed that giving up grudges can reduce chronic back pain. Another found that forgiveness limited relapses among women battling substance-abuse problems. One intriguing project discussed at the event — run by the nonprofit Campaign for Forgiveness Research — used MRI scans to explore how just thinking about empathy and reconciliation sparks activity in the brain’s left middle temporal gyrus, suggesting we all have a mental forgiveness center set to be tapped.

So, on top of having profound emotional benefits, purging our anger may also help heal some of what ails us physically. But how do we do it? And what does it mean to forgive?

Elizabeth Nassau’s revelation came at a chance meeting with her estranged friend: “Instead of turning away, I told her how profoundly she had hurt me. She listened, but didn’t apologize. Then I surprised myself. I apologized for harboring anger and hatred against her for so long. As I spoke, I realized I’d forgiven her.”

The effect was potent. “My anger melted away,” she says. Nassau hasn’t renewed the friendship, but now when she sees her ex-pal, “I can breathe calmly and my heart isn’t palpitating.”

Nassau’s experience fits with the findings of Fred Luskin, PhD, director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good. Luskin — quick to emphasize that forgiving doesn’t mean condoning the offense — has found that letting go of a grudge can slash one’s stress level by up to 50 percent. Volunteers in his studies also have shown improvements in energy, mood, sleep quality and overall physical vitality. “Carrying around a load of bitterness and anger at how unfairly you were treated is very toxic,” says Luskin.

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