Using Forgiveness for Better Physical Health

Person holding a pink rose

While forgiving ourselves or others often seems like a good idea or even the ‘right’ thing to do, there is more and more evidence that the practice can improve physical health too. Sometimes when people hear about forgiving, they feel resistance as they think back to the challenging or unhelpful ways forgiveness was taught in their family, neighborhood, or faith community. Many times, forgiveness is seen primarily as an act performed for, or to benefit, another person. Or it was used to condone, excuse, or minimize behavior that was hurtful or harmful. The challenge for today is to re-frame what forgiveness is (and isn’t) and reclaim the ability to forgive as a means to heal oneself—body, mind and spirit.

A Study on Physical Health & Forgiveness

Looking through the lens of physical health, it seems intuitive that holding on to anger, hurt, resentment, fear, and other pain could be hard on the body. Looking for proof of this, a recent study looked at the correlation between emotions and inflammation levels in the body. The study concluded that cultivating a wide range of positive emotions is linked to decreased inflammation levels in the body (1). According to a Harvard Medical School report, “Chronic inflammation plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s.”

The research correlating emotions and inflammation was conducted between 2007-2012 and involved 175 community participants, aged 40 to 65. Each participant submitted diaries of their emotions, including such details as the number of different emotions they felt, how often they felt the emotions, and how strongly they experienced them. Researchers refer to this range or diversity of emotions as “emodiversity.” The participants were asked to assess 16 positive and 16 negative emotions which included:

Positive Emotions Negative Emotions
Determination Fright
Enthusiasm Fear
Inspiration Upset
Interest Distress
Excitement Jittery
Amusement Nervousness
Alertness Shame
Activity Guilt
Strength Irritability
Pride Hostility
Attentiveness Tiredness
Happiness Sluggishness
Relaxation Sleepiness
Cheerfulness Feeling blue
Ease Sad
Calmness Drowsy

As part of the study, participants had their blood drawn at two different intervals which were analyzed for three different inflammatory markers: IL-6, CRP, and fibrinogen. Even after accounting for age, gender, anti-inflammatory medications, BMI, medical conditions, personality, and mean levels of positive and negative emotions, the researchers found the people with the lowest inflammation rates were the ones who noted a wider range of positive emotions. Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, experiencing a wider range of positive emotions seemed to matter more than simply feeling happy.

Cultivating Positive Emotions

So how to cultivate positive emotions? There seems to be so much angst these days; fear, anger, divisiveness, and despair abound. It can seem difficult to simply ‘think positively’. The Unconditional Forgiveness model, based in psychology and spirituality, offers a reliable, step-by-step model to release the negative emotions, cancel expectations, set new boundaries, and make room for more of what heals–love, positivity, hope, power, freedom. This is what forgiving is all about. And it appears that making space for this wider range of positive emotions can lower the inflammation in the body!