The Physical Toll of Holding a Grudge

May 20, 2019

Living and interacting with other humans comes with all kinds of benefits, as well as the potential for pain and harm. Humans are messy! But did you know that how you respond to your treatment by others has a profound impact on your physical health? Our souls, minds, and bodies are inseparable. How we treat our souls and the souls of other people affects our bodies, and vice versa. So when someone hurts or harms us, our response to these acts can actually increase or decrease the harmful effects of the acts themselves. Keep reading to find out how unforgiveness specifically can impact your health, and what you can do about it.

The Physical Costs of Unforgiveness

When someone wrongs you in some way, whether the wound is deep or superficial, it can cause intense emotional pain. This includes feelings of betrayal, questioning of your own value, anger, extreme sadness, and often a desire for revenge. Some of these may be legitimate feelings that should be acknowledged in order to be properly addressed. Trying to ignore or suppress negative feelings instead of dealing with them openly and honestly can result in your internal wound festering and causing even more harm including ongoing depression and sadness.

But failing to forgive someone who has hurt you can take a serious physical toll as well. In fact, studies suggest that unforgiveness can lead to a host of physical issues, while forgiving can promote physical wellbeing[1].

Fight-or-Flight

When you experience anger, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This can be beneficial for situations where immediate action is needed, but if you remain in this state, it can result in frequent changes to your blood pressure[2], heart rate[3], and even your immune response. The fight or flight response is the body’s way of reacting to sudden or extreme circumstances. It’s not meant to be your body’s continual state. In one study[4], researchers discovered increased systolic blood pressure in people who had high levels of hostility while discussing past hurtful experiences.

Poor Sleep

Holding onto unforgiveness often involves continually thinking about the wrong that was done to you, the injustice of the perpetrator seeming to get away with it, or other negative factors involved. According to a 2008 study[5], this anger and dwelling on the hurt can disrupt quality sleep, which your body desperately needs. This can result in daytime fatigue, and wear down both your mind and body.

Increased Stress

Stress has all kinds of sources, and as we’ve discussed before, all kinds of health implications. Inability to cope with emotional trauma can be a serious source of stress. Studies suggest[6] that unforgiveness (anger, hatred, and resentment) increases the stress in your relationships and interactions, and contributes in part to the negative effects of stress on your physical health.

Chronic Back Pain

According to a 2005 study[7], there may be a connection between chronic lower back pain, and the inability to forgive. Researchers found a correlation between higher levels of forgiveness, and lower levels of persistent back pain, as well as anger and psychological distress. Back pain has many causes, but if you find that you just can’t let go of your anger or resentment about something wrong that has been done to you, you may just find yourself carrying that around in your own back.

Depression and Anxiety

This one may seem obvious, but pain and anger associated with hurts you have suffered at the hands of others can have a direct correlation on depression. On the other hand, researchers have found[8] that increased forgiveness of both yourself and others can result in decreased depression and hopelessness. Studies[9] have also found that forgiveness can help victims of abuse recover, and help alleviate some of the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Holding onto a grudge or multiple grudges, especially long-term, can deteriorate your body. Unforgiveness, or a desire for the person who harmed you to suffer, can result in your own suffering instead.

How to start forgiving

Forgiveness is not going to look the same in every situation. Sometimes it will result in a restored relationship with the person who hurt you, and other times it won’t. In situations involving abusive or dangerous patterns and behaviors, drawing boundaries is important. But even in these cases, it’s possible to let go of resentment, anger, a desire for revenge or to harm the person, and replace them with a desire for that person’s ultimate good. Following are just a few steps you can take to start forgiving.

Recognizing your own guilt or imperfections 

This isn’t to say that both parties are always guilty in any conflict. Of course that’s not the case. But even if you are innocent in a specific situation, if you are honest you know that you have wounded others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and you yourself want to be forgiven by those people. Humbly acknowledging your own fallibility and shortcomings is a good way to start having a more compassionate response toward others who have hurt you.

Serving/kindness toward perpetrator

Sometimes the best remedy for the heart is to act on behalf of others rather than ourselves. Intentionally acting kindly toward your enemies or those who have hurt you can soften your heart toward them and help  release bitterness. Sometimes this can be just doing some small act of service for them. In more serious cases, this kindness may take a more “tough love” form. Anyone who has loved an addict, an abuser, or someone with a narcissistic personality disorder knows that enabling that behavior can actually be unkind. When the situation calls for “tough love” it’s important to take an honest look at your motives. Are you taking actions out of a desire for vindication or vengeance? Or are you taking actions for the ultimate good of the other person?

Stop the tape loop in your mind

It can be easy to dwell on what has been done to you, rehearsing it over and over in your thoughts. But doing so often only increases your pain and makes forgiveness more difficult. Be intentional about turning your thoughts toward better things. Focus on blessings in your life, and even the good things that may have come out of the painful situation. It may be good to find a trusted counselor or close friend to help you process through your feelings, but refrain from indulging opportunities to gossip, or go over and over the Injustice of what was done to you. When you’re tempted to go back there, picture yourself writing down in a ledger what that person owes you, and then mentally cross it out and close the book.

    The bottom line is, living with unforgiveness can damage your physical health, your emotional wellbeing, and your relationships. Learn to let go of resentment and start enjoying more health, peace, and freedom.

    References

    [1] Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmondson KA, Jones WH. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. J Behav Med. 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67. PubMed PMID: 15957571.

    [2] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TW, Uchino BN. Can hostility interfere with the health benefits of giving and receiving social support? The impact of cynical hostility on cardiovascular reactivity during social support interactions among friends. Ann Behav Med. 2008 Jun;35(3):319-30. doi: 10.1007/s12160-008-9041-z. Epub 2008 Jun 27. PubMed PMID: 18584266.

    [3] vanOyen Witvliet C, Ludwig TE, Vander Laan KL. Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychol Sci. 2001 Mar;12(2):117-23. PubMed PMID: 11340919.

    [4] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TW, Uchino BN. Can hostility interfere with the health benefits of giving and receiving social support? The impact of cynical hostility on cardiovascular reactivity during social support interactions among friends. Ann Behav Med. 2008 Jun;35(3):319-30. doi: 10.1007/s12160-008-9041-z. Epub 2008 Jun 27. PubMed PMID: 18584266.

    [5] Stoia-Caraballo R, Rye MS, Pan W, Brown Kirschman KJ, Lutz-Zois C, Lyons AM. Negative affect and anger rumination as mediators between forgiveness and sleep quality. J Behav Med. 2008 Dec;31(6):478-88. doi: 10.1007/s10865-008-9172-5. Epub 2008 Sep 12. PubMed PMID: 18787939.

    [6] Toussaint, Loren L et al. “Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study.” Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine vol. 50,5 (2016): 727-735. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6.

    [7] Carson JW, Keefe FJ, Goli V, Fras AM, Lynch TR, Thorp SR, Buechler JL. Forgiveness and chronic low back pain: a preliminary study examining the relationship of forgiveness to pain, anger, and psychological distress. J Pain. 2005 Feb;6(2):84-91. PubMed PMID: 15694874.

    [8] Toussaint, L. L., Williams, D. R., Musick, M. A., & Everson-Rose, S. A. (2008). Why forgiveness may protect against depression: Hopelessness as an explanatory mechanism. Personality and Mental Health, 2(2), 89–103. doi:10.1002/pmh.35[Crossref], [Web of Science ®],

    [9] Reed GL, Enright RD. The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2006 Oct;74(5):920-9. PubMed PMID: 17032096.

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