Forgiveness and your health: What science says about the benefits

A father forgives the man...

Posted: Jun 5, 2019 10:31 AM

A father forgives the man involved in his son's death. A mother forgives her daughter's killers. One family offers forgiveness to the man who shot their dad.

We hear about these stories of people forgiving those who hurt them all the time, and they stand out because for some, such a gesture is unimaginable. We all understand why someone wouldn't forgive the person -- but we often struggle to understand those who choose to do so.

It's a struggle that Everett Worthington knows all too well.

He knows it not just because Worthington is a professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, nor because he authored several books on forgiveness and conducted research on the topic -- but because he is the son of a woman who was murdered.

Following his mother's tragic death, Worthington faced the difficult decision to forgive.

"That ended up being a hard growing experience and one where my brother and my sister and I all came to the same conclusion about the young man: that we forgave him," Worthington said.

Working toward forgiveness in such tragic cases might seem noble to some but puzzling to others who might argue a killer should not be forgiven.

"[Forgiveness is] what mom taught us to do and we would be dishonoring her if we didn't follow her teaching," he said about forgiveness. "People don't deserve forgiveness. It's a gift that people give."

Based on his own journey to forgiveness -- and his own studies -- Worthington agrees with the general consensus among researchers that acts of forgiveness actually do a lot for the person who extends it.

Here's what we know about how the human mind views the gesture.

'Whose heart is darker here?'

The sun set on New Year's Eve night in Knoxville, Tennessee. The year was shifting from 1995 to 1996, and Worthington's 76-year-old mother Frances McNeill went to bed early.

Later in the night, McNeill awoke from her slumber to the noise of someone burglarizing her home.

"It was a young man who had broken in," Worthington said. "She's looking right at him, and he's standing there holding a crowbar that he used to break in the window and he beat her until she died, and actually violated her with a wine bottle."

Worthington's younger brother Mike, who died by suicide about 10 years later, found their mother's body the next morning.

"We had gone through the murder investigation over the course of the day and I had just gotten really angry with the person who had done this," Worthington said about that devastating day.

"I got so angry in discussing this with my brother who had just discovered the body, and my sister, that I pointed to a baseball bat against the wall and said, 'I wish whoever did that were here. I would beat his brains out,' and I was so angry that I couldn't sleep," he said.

Then, as the night turned to morning, Worthington's thoughts of anger started to change.

"I was pacing the room at my aunt's house, where I was staying there, and at about 3 o'clock in the morning I started thinking, 'Hey I'm a forgiveness researcher. I'm a psychotherapist. I helped couples forgive for years. I'm a Christian. I've got a belief system that supports forgiveness, and yet I have not allowed myself to even think the F-word all day, the forgiveness word,' " Worthington said.

"About the time I got through thinking of this, I kind of flashed back to earlier that night where I was looking at that baseball bat thinking I would beat him in the head until he died. And it just came to me: whose heart is darker here?"

Worthington decided to follow an intervention model he created years prior called REACH Forgiveness -- a guide to help his clients become more forgiving, which he needed at that moment for himself.

REACH stands for recalling the incident that hurt you; empathizing with the person who wronged you; thinking of forgiving that person as an altruistic gift; committing yourself to forgiving them; and then holding onto that forgiveness without taking it back.

But there are some people for whom the concept of forgiveness is totally foreign.

"There are differences in philosophy and religion and personal beliefs about whether people think forgiveness is appropriate or possible and those kinds of beliefs can stop them from forgiving," Worthington said.

Yet in general, studies suggest that practicing acts of forgiveness is tied to both mental and some physical health benefits, including reductions in blood pressure levels.

The health benefits of forgiveness

Harboring anger and hostility were associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease in a paper that published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2009.

The paper, which involved reviewing 44 previously published studies on heart disease, found that anger and hostility were linked with increased coronary heart disease events, such as heart attack, in healthy people and poor prognosis in those who already had a history of heart disease.

"To better understand the process of forgiveness, it might be useful to step back and look at the process of holding on to anger," said Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on the body's stress response, or fight or flight response, chronically. We know that turning on this response chronically leads to wear and tear on the body," she said. "It may not be surprising that when we engage in the act of forgiveness, we can begin to turn off the stress response and the physiological changes that accompany it."

Even in people with high lifetime stress, among those who score high on measures of forgiveness -- in which they report engaging in acts of forgiveness -- their high-stress lives tend not to predict poor mental health, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2016.

In other words, forgiveness might provide some protective factors against lifetime stress, even though researchers have long known that lifetime stress is tied to worse mental health outcomes.

Another study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2016, found that over time, increases in forgiveness are associated with decreases in stress.

The study involved using questionnaires to measure levels of forgiveness and perceived stress among 332 adults, age 16 to 79. The adults were followed for five weeks, and levels of forgiveness were measured by asking whether the adults agreed or disagreed with statements such as "I wish for good things to happen to the person who wronged me."

The study found that levels of forgiveness tended to change over time, but in general, "increases in forgiveness were associated with reductions in perceived stress, which were in turn related to decreases in mental but not physical health symptoms," the researchers wrote in the study.

"Given how complex we are as human beings in terms of our biology and our experiences, it is difficult to generalize why some people are more likely to forgive than others. However, forgiveness is a skill that can be cultivated," Gould said.

How to become more forgiving

The level of ease you have with forgiving can be tied to your personality type; genetics; whether you're trusting or suspicious of others due to past experiences; and the nature of the offense you are trying to forgive, Worthington said.

"There is, with any hurt or offense, what I call an 'injustice gap.' It's a sense of how much injustice has been done, and big gaps are hard to forgive. Small gaps are easier to forgive," he said. "When offenders admit responsibility, offer an apology, show they understand how much they hurt the other, offer restitution, ask for forgiveness, all of these are perceived by the victim as costly, which reduces the 'injustice gap.' "

For some people, practicing forgiveness comes easily -- while for others it can be an ongoing struggle. That's why even restorative justice, the alternative response to crime that focuses on healing rather than punishment, never asks its participants to forgive. It's a personal choice that only a survivor can make.

If it's one you are struggling with, Worthington said, there are ways to learn how to be more forgiving, such as by following the REACH Forgiveness model he developed during his academic career.

One separate study also suggests that, among people who practice prayer, they can become more forgiving the more they pray.

Among 151 study participants, those who said a brief 3 minute prayer for their romantic partner showed statistically significant decreases in motives to retaliate against their partner when offenses were made after that prayer compared with before, according to the study published in the International Journal of Psychology in 2015.

The study participants, college students from the United States and India, included those of the Christian, Hindu and Muslim faiths, and the study found that religious affiliations did not moderate the effect of prayer on forgiveness in the participants.

No matter your preferred method of reaching forgiveness, there are steps anyone can take to begin the process of forgiveness, said Kevin Gilliland, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the outpatient counseling service Innovation360 in Dallas, Texas.

It just takes "discipline, inner strength and intentionality," he said.

"In order for our hearts to heal, forgiveness is essential. Realize that forgiveness is for us, not them. It is unfortunate that someone caused us harm but holding on to the negative feelings towards that person is only hurting ourselves. Forgiveness takes practice and is not always a one-time decision," Gilliland said.

"We may need to forgive some offenses every day, until we start remembering the offense less and less," he said. "We may never understand 'why,' but that may not be for us to figure out."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 295357

Reported Deaths: 5305
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion40796844
Lake25864448
Allen17025289
Elkhart16389209
St. Joseph16125217
Hamilton12225163
Vanderburgh9218112
Tippecanoe807627
Porter770176
Johnson5971161
Hendricks5719154
Vigo563274
Monroe519846
Clark486774
Delaware4721103
Madison4651119
Kosciusko437339
LaPorte436792
Howard321375
Warrick309072
Floyd301177
Bartholomew296262
Wayne292261
Cass291231
Marshall283642
Grant254147
Noble244246
Hancock238949
Henry234136
Boone231754
Dubois229230
Dearborn204629
Jackson200033
Morgan196043
Gibson171622
Knox170715
Clinton170420
Shelby170453
Lawrence169246
DeKalb168428
Adams160019
Miami150414
Daviess149143
Wabash148118
Fayette141233
Steuben139713
LaGrange135127
Jasper134911
Harrison134624
Montgomery127926
Whitley127410
Ripley121414
Decatur119842
Posey116613
Putnam115626
Wells115427
Huntington115210
White115221
Randolph114619
Clay111821
Jefferson110314
Scott97918
Greene97553
Jay93012
Starke87021
Sullivan85515
Perry80521
Spencer7957
Jennings79114
Fulton78717
Fountain7257
Washington6966
Carroll65313
Orange64828
Franklin63525
Owen5676
Vermillion5662
Newton53412
Parke5296
Tipton52826
Blackford50011
Rush5006
Pike49618
Pulaski36410
Martin3425
Brown3153
Benton3101
Crawford2711
Union2551
Switzerland2453
Warren2272
Ohio2227
Unassigned0265

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 351419

Reported Deaths: 5996
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin48389665
Cuyahoga34096734
Hamilton28674371
Montgomery19082225
Butler14138144
Lucas13446406
Summit12431309
Stark8122197
Warren770375
Mahoning6772299
Lake625466
Lorain590297
Clermont541946
Delaware521435
Licking506275
Fairfield505163
Trumbull4969144
Greene489662
Clark486664
Marion451451
Allen446384
Wood4243107
Medina413354
Miami398565
Pickaway387948
Columbiana328496
Portage323171
Wayne303593
Tuscarawas299557
Richland293929
Mercer281237
Ross234559
Hancock225336
Muskingum223610
Auglaize218925
Putnam218649
Darke208058
Erie205565
Ashtabula204753
Geauga189451
Scioto186713
Lawrence181336
Athens17954
Union17928
Shelby176715
Seneca165018
Belmont151529
Madison151018
Sandusky144427
Preble143821
Huron139218
Holmes137039
Defiance131121
Knox118818
Logan118313
Fulton117225
Ottawa114730
Crawford114216
Washington112427
Clinton100314
Williams9938
Jefferson9894
Ashland98322
Highland96317
Henry94422
Brown9324
Champaign8935
Jackson87312
Fayette86617
Van Wert8596
Morrow8312
Hardin82518
Guernsey79213
Coshocton78813
Perry73312
Pike7081
Adams70611
Wyandot68916
Gallia68113
Paulding61710
Hocking58511
Noble56121
Carroll41610
Meigs36312
Monroe29921
Morgan2342
Vinton2075
Harrison1823
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Few Clouds
30° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 30°
Angola
Clear
28° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 28°
Huntington
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 32°
Decatur
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 32°
Van Wert
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 32°
Snow/Rain Showers Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events