Traditional western medicine focuses on treating symptoms rather than the root causes of illness. If we are depressed, we get a pill for depression. If we are having panic attacks, we get a pill for anxiety. If we have aches and pains, we get muscle relaxants and pain killers.
How many times has your physician asked you about your marriage? How about your stress level at work? Have you ever been asked if you are in an abusive relationship? How about whether you are harboring any resentment towards your parents, an accident you might have had years ago, or towards an ex partner?
The truth is that stress and the factors leading to stress cause many health conditions. Translation: Unforgiveness can negatively affect your health.
There are many studies over the past 10 years that concur with this bold statement. What happens when we are stressed out is that the brain tells the adrenals to release the hormone cortisol. This is the fight/flight hormone. When your body releases cortisol, you are in a state of heightened alert, which is great when you are in trouble. NOT great when it is released over a prolonged period. When your body is in that mode, your immune system literally shuts down! In other words, the natural daily defenses we have against disease just do not work well and we get sick, hurt, develop illness.
Dr. Joe Dispenza talks about this concept at his workshops and in his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One (2012). He says that animals about to be eaten go into fight/flight mode and 15 minutes after the life-threatening event is over, they are stable and stress-free! On the other hand, humans are so intelligent that we can obsess and just think about a past event that freaked us out and our body instantly goes into fight/flight mode just from the thoughts! Animals live in the now. Humans struggle to stay in the now. It’s like we are addicted to the pain, tormenting ourselves over and over again. Think about this, the release of cortisol creates something similar to an adrenaline rush when we go into this mode. Maybe we re-create these “trauma-drama” situations in our thought patters because we are addicted to the particular rush of energy that comes with the cortisol release?
Dr. Joe says that our bodies are literally addicted to those thoughts, and at times, the body starts responding even before the thoughts become entrenched! He claims that meditation is a very useful tool because it moves us from our analytical mind into the subconscious mind, where change can take place. There is less resistance to change at that “alpha-theta” level and that is where the miracles can happen. This is where the stuck patterns of thought-emotion-body response can start to release. These entrenched thought patterns have turned into a belief system. Unfortunately, we are very attached to our beliefs, even the unhealthy ones.
The good news is that we know that there are ways to deal with stress. Research supports life-style changes, such as meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise, being out in nature, counseling, coaching and forgiveness work, all resulting in reducing stress as well as changing belief systems. Unfortunately, many wait until one of the three D’s happen to make the changes – Death of a loved one, Disease or Divorce. Then we recognize the WAKE-UP call.
The Forgiveness Project, in cooperation with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, has stated that Cancer, and other life-altering diseases, can benefit from forgiveness. For many patients, they live in a state of chronic unforgiveness – a holding onto anger, hate and resentment. When that is released, they found that immune systems are enhanced tremendously.
Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention found, “[w]hen you hold onto the bitterness for years, it stops you from living your life fully. As it turns out, it wears out your immune system and hurts your heart.” Fred Luskin, PhD, Director of the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University said, “[s]tress exacerbates pain, tightens muscles and interferes with the smooth running of the immune system – all things that have an effect on arthritis.” He said “[p]eople think they have this unlimited storage of anger, judgment and hostility that will never come home to roost, but it comes home immediately.”
If we know that forgiveness actually increases health, why are people reticent to forgive?
Ask yourself, what resentment are you holding onto? Ask why you are holding onto that anger, hurt or bitterness. See if your reason falls into one of these common myths or misperceptions about forgiveness:
1. You will let the offender off the hook if you forgive.
2. It would mean you somehow agree with or condone their bad behavior.
3. It would mean you have to naively trust that person again.
4. It means you have to have a relationship with that person.
5. It means that you are weak.
An interesting study described in the Psychological Science journal from March 2001 shows that those who hold grudges are more at risk of heart problems and high blood pressure than those who are naturally forgiving, and it confirms what Dr. Joe Dispenza says, that just THINKING about the situation causes higher heart rates and blood pressure! And, even after you are done ‘thinking’ about it, the research shows those risks are still higher!
In 2004, a study of Veterans found that the difficulty forgiving oneself is related to anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder symptom (PTSD) severity. Further, difficulty forgiving others is related to depression and PTSD symptom severity, but not to anxiety.
No forgiveness discussion can be complete without talking about self-forgiveness. There are times in everyone’s life where we are embarrassed or ashamed by our own behavior. Some of us can forgive, and let ourselves off the hook. Others will punish ourselves forever. We wallow in shame and guilt and never let ourselves off the hook. People involved in 12 step programs know this scenario well. They must take an inventory of their wrongs and try to apologize or repair the harm they caused. This is a beautiful, yet painful process.
Shame and guilt are ugly mates. If you are holding onto these unattractive partners, I encourage you to release them immediately. They do not make wrongs right. They do not serve anyone and they destroy your own health. If you wish to make amends, be healthy and make a positive contribution to the world.
Forgiveness often starts with taking personal responsibility and ends with gratitude for the lesson.