Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why Forgiveness is Important to Your Health

It is easier to bear a grudge against an enemy, easier to build walls than to let them go. Far easier it is to bask in righteous indignation than to admit that perhaps in the larger scheme of things, we are not all that right; perhaps we might even be wrong. Sam Keen once said,"Our problem lies not in our technology, but in our minds, in our ancient tendency to create enemies in our imagination."

This is the function of our ancient reptilian brain, the stalker and enemy maker that lies curled up in our "amygdala." Our ancient brain builds fortresses and moats, dredging reptilian memories from mud and walling them within our cerebellum as conditioned reflexes, unthinking, unconscious and primitive. But thanks to our prefrontal cortex, we have the ability to reign in our emotions, view the situation with equanimity and perhaps even go as far as forgiving our enemy.

According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness is good for our health. Studies show that anger creates a whole host of nasty effects on our bodies. It suppresses the immune system; it suppresses thyroid function, slowing down the body's metabolism; it impairs the brain's thinking ability and it jeopardizes our ability to sleep. Anger stalls the body's normal processes of repair and recovery. It contributes to the clenching of the jaws and eventual problems with teeth and jaw joints. It increases tension headaches and joint pain.

Most of all, anger elevates heart rate and blood pressure; it increases muscle tension as the body contends with a sense of losing control. Cases of people literally dying from anger are not unusual. Anger can constrict heart muscle and vessels and trigger a heart attack.

Studies also show that men have a more difficult time forgiving than women do. Women have been socialized into being more empathetic than men. Women also find it easier to talk problems over and move towards a common resolution. Women have learned to network since kindergarten; they have learned to build on the basis of cooperation rather than vengeance.

What happens to our body when we release anger and welcome forgiveness?

Our muscles relax. We breathe more easily. Our blood vessels open up; more oxygen enters our bloodstream. We feel as though a load has been taken off our chest. We sleep more deeply, more peacefully at night. Our body processes achieve equilibrium again and our energy fields become unblocked. We are no longer pouring energy into building walls; we can now re-direct energy towards building relationships, coherence and love.

We can all learn to forgive by concentrating on the present. Live in the moment and let past wrongs go; let go of all future worries. Regular meditation sessions can help us redirect our mind and body to the present moment.

All spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of forgiveness because healing, both personal and communal, cannot take place without forgiveness.

Bianca Tora is a writer interested in the relationship between lifestyle and the brain, specifically the area of emotional regulation and control. She has published a book on anger management for children. Visit her at
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