Studies show that people who harbor long term anger and resentment are at an increased risk for high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, chronic inflammation, compromised immunity and are more likely to die of heart disease and other illnesses.
Physiologically, when we are angry and resentful, our fight response is triggered, effectively making it so that our bodies are instinctively preparing for battle all the time. This causes our hearts to race and our blood pressure to rise, which might not be harmful in isolated cases of conflict. When the feelings of bitterness become chronic, though, we experience the stress of an aggravating incident over and over again, every time we ruminate on it in our minds.
Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, said,
“The data that negative mental states cause heart problems is just stupendous. The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same.”
All of us will be hurt in our lifetimes. We will all feel the sting of bitterness. If resentment is just as dangerous to our health as smoking, what can we do to stop it from taking a toll on our health?
Letting go of resentment, healing ourselves with forgiveness
The key to letting go of resentment and reversing the damage it can do to our bodies lies in forgiveness.
Many people feel as though forgiving someone who has harmed them, gives the other person power in the situation, or that forgiveness is akin to weakness.
Forgiving someone who has hurt you doesn’t have to mean giving that person a pass, or asserting that their actions were okay. What healing forgiveness really means is that we allow ourselves to let go of our negative feelings of resentment, and move on with our lives, for our own sake.
We can forgive someone without excusing their actions. In many cases, we may even opt to exclude that person from our lives, not allowing them access to hurt us, again.
The point of forgiveness is that we loosen the grip that chronic negative emotions have on us. It doesn’t even need to have anything to do with the person who wronged us. Giving ourselves permission to forgive often makes way for gentleness and compassion, which can usher in a sense of peace that permeates all aspects of our health.
Some health benefits of forgiveness are:
- Better, more fulfilling relationships
- Greater feelings of well being and decreased symptoms of depression
- Lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health
- Less anxiety and stress
- Lowered incidence of substance abuse
First of all, keep in mind the health benefits of forgiving, and the damage resentfulness and bitterness can do to your health. If you picture your blood vessels restricting and your blood pressure rising every time you fixate on negative feelings, you’ll be more likely to seek out ways to reorient your thinking. Intention is the first step towards forgiveness.
Also, consider meditation. A sitting practice can teach you to recognize your inner voice as thinking, and nothing more, and to let go of the thoughts, and be present in the current moment.
When we’ve been carrying bitterness with us for a long time, it can seem like a very real and fixed part of us. By labeling our thoughts as thinking and letting go of the dialogue in our heads, returning to a focus on breathing, we are training to live our lives in the present, instead of mired down in thoughts of past transgressions.
A sustained meditation practice can be the gateway to learning to be gentle with, and take care of ourselves, which allows us to consider and forgive other people.
Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to understand the circumstances and experiences that led them to do something so hurtful can also be instrumental in learning to forgive. It is important to remember that, when someone is acting in a way that is harmful, it is because they are suffering.
Poet laureate and author, Maya Angelou, put it eloquently when she said, “What I realized is that people do what they know to do. … If someone hurts my feelings or hurts me in any way, I think, ‘This dummy, that’s all he knew,’ and I’m not going to carry this bitterness around with me. I will not give it a perch. I will not give it a place to live in me because I know that’s dangerous.”