Improve your holiday health with the power of forgiveness

Oct 31, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Loved ones gathered together during the holidays can bring out the worst in people who continue to harbor resentment toward a particular friend or family member. Anger-filled reunions take all the fun out of the fa-la-la. Even worse, holding hurt, anger and hostility is bad for your mental and physical health. Forgiving someone of their trespasses not only opens up new pathways in a relationship, it’s good for you. Here’s how to learn to forgive and what making amends can do for your health.

Man asking forgivness

Letting go lowers blood pressure

In a 2006 study conducted by Dr. Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., author of Forgive for Good, researchers examined whether people diagnosed with stage 1 hypertension could lower their blood pressure after going through a forgiveness training program. The scientists measured anger expression and blood pressure. After an eight-week forgiveness training program the subjects showed significant reduction in their blood pressure compared with the control group. Researchers suggest that this kind of training could be a useful clinical intervention for some patients with hypertension who have high levels of anger.

Reduce anger, raise optimism, improve cognition

While in college, Luskin became interested in the power of forgiveness. After being unable to release his anger towards a friend, he decided to complete his dissertation on the topic of forgiveness. After getting his doctorate, Luskin then created the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. "The results were very positive," he said. "People showed less stress, less anger, more optimism and more forgiveness."

Forgiving someone might also make you smarter. Dr. Tom Farrow, a clinical psychologist, and his colleagues scanned a subject's brain using a high-definition magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. It turns out when a person is in the process of forgiving, activity in the frontal lobe of the brain increases. The frontal lobe is involved in problem-solving and complex thought, essentially the more complex functions of thinking and reasoning.

Steps to forgiveness

Luskin lists nine steps to help forgive:

  1. Acknowledge. Recognize exactly how you feel, communicate that it's not OK and confide your story to a few people you trust.
  2. Commit to yourself. Feeling better is for you -- no one else.
  3. Seek peace. The goal isn't to accept or approve of what happened but to find peace in the situation. Luskin defines forgiveness as the "peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally and changing your grievance story."
  4. Gain perspective. Acknowledge that your physical and emotional distress is coming from your anger and hurt now, not what happened in the past.
  5. Manage stress. When you get upset practice a stress management strategy to calm your body's fight or flight response.
  6. Change expectations. Stop expecting other people to give you what you want in life. "Recognize the 'unenforceable rules' you have for your health or how you or other people must behave," writes Luskin.
  7. Use your power for good. Focus your energy on making positive goals for yourself rather than using what hurt you as leverage to get what you want in life.
  8. Live well. The best revenge is a life well-lived. Rather than focusing on your pain, look for all the good, kindness, love and beauty that surrounds you.
  9. Make amends. Change your anger or hurt story to one where you make the heroic decision to forgive, rather than to continue to resent.

Learning to forgive doesn't mean you necessarily condone wrongful behavior or distressing situations, it means acknowledging your anger and resentment, gaining perspective, then consciously choosing to make amends so you can find peace. In the process of letting go, you can improve your emotional and physical health.

More on forgiveness

Teaching your kids about forgiveness
If you forgive, do you have to forget?
How to forgive and move forward after an affair