That’s because we’re wired to treat any tension-inducing event, be it a fire alarm or reliving a simmering feud, as a crisis. At these times, our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, prompting our hearts to accelerate, our breath to quicken and our minds to race. An accompanying sugar release revs up muscles, and clotting factors surge in the blood. It’s all harmless if the scare is brief (like a near mishap on the highway). But anger and resentment are like accidents that don’t end, turning hormones meant to save us into toxins.
Cortisol’s depressive effect on the immune system has been linked to serious disorders. Bruce McEwen, PhD, director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University in New York City, says cortisol wears down the brain, leading to cell atrophy and memory loss. It also raises blood pressure and blood sugar, hardening arteries and leading to heart disease.
Enter forgiveness, which seems to stop these hormones from flowing. For a study presented to the American Psychosomatic Society last March, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers recruited 36 male veterans who had coronary artery disease and were also burdened by painful issues, some war-related, some tied to marital problems, work conflicts or childhood traumas. Half the men received forgiveness training; the rest didn’t. Those who got the training showed greater blood flow to the heart.
Just thinking about resolving a hurt can help. In a 2001 study, psychologist Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, hooked 71 college students to sensors and had them relive lies, insults or betrayals by family members, friends or lovers. Told to imagine forgiving the offenders, the subjects experienced heart rates and blood pressure two and a half times lower than when they thought about holding a grudge. “It appears that forgiveness could be a powerful antidote to anger, which is strongly associated with chronically elevated blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease,” says Witvliet.
That makes sense to Sandra Lamb. After growing worried last year about her 82-year-old father’s poor driving, the Denver woman confronted him.
“I told him he really should consider not driving anymore, because it was getting dangerous,” Lamb says. “He got so angry he was shaking, and said, ‘I’ve been driving all my life — and no one is going to take my car keys.’ Then he told me he never wanted to see me again.” Lamb was so upset and angry that she was unable to talk to her father for seven months.
Eventually, though, she felt she had to reconcile with him before it was too late. She went to visit him. “I told my father I was sorry about how I handled the driving issue, and apologized for upsetting him.” And she forgave him for lashing out. “He hugged me and said, ‘That’s okay.’ I was very happy and thankful to have our relationship restored.” Health problems soon made the driving dispute moot.