Forgiveness could be balm for the body, too The shackles of the past can harm your health, experts warn
USA TODAY - October 23, 2003

The ability to forgive just might improve your marriage, your health and your outlook on life.

Those are strong claims for forgiveness -- an idea that has mostly been talked about in the realm of religion.

But now the subject has become fodder for a wide range of experts, including marriage therapists, physicians, mental health professionals, brain researchers and others concerned with physical and emotional well-being.

A new round of findings is expected Friday, when more than 40 scientists and researchers gather in Atlanta for a conference hosted by A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, a non-profit organization that promotes studies.

Researchers look at many aspects of forgiveness and use different tools. They deal with the effects of forgiving a wide range of transgressions, from child abuse to marital disagreements.

Overall, findings show a link between forgiveness and health, says Everett Worthington, executive director of the group. ''Chronic unforgiveness causes stress,'' he says. ''Every time people think of their transgressor, their body responds.''

Blood pressure and heart rates go up. Facial muscles tense, stress hormones kick in. Chronic stress affects the immune and cardiovascular systems, he says. Forgiveness reduces stress by replacing ''negative emotions with positive ones.''

Interest in forgiveness has ''exploded,'' Worthington says. His group, started in 1998, has raised money from 13 donors and foundations for various projects. He believes the research eventually will benefit ''those who want to forgive and believe it is necessary to in order to get on with life.''

One study being presented at the meeting finds that although women perceive themselves as more forgiving than men, they really are not.

''Women appear to rate themselves as being more forgiving, but this higher-level of forgiveness was not apparent in their (self-rated) behavior,'' says Ann Macaskill of Sheffield Hallam University in England. She studied 214 students who were asked to write about someone who had unfairly caused hurt and how much he or she had actually forgiven the person.

Other researchers say forgiveness can be taught -- and can produce measurable results. Psychologist Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects at Stanford University heads a series of studies of people, some with ''unresolved hurts'' from the likes of parents, spouses or bosses and some with very dramatic psychological injuries.

In one program, 17 adults from Northern Ireland who had been traumatized by an immediate family member's murder were brought to Stanford for a week of ''forgiveness training'' that included group discussions and advice on new ways to think about trauma. Afterward, participants on average reported 37% less hurt and about 35% fewer physical symptoms of stress, such as poor appetite.

Many marriage therapists believe forgiveness between couples is mandatory. Some research suggests that when partners don't forgive each other for past hurts, they are less apt to manage conflict in the present. Luskin says adults who cannot forgive their parents for mistakes may unwittingly transfer their anger to spouses.

Other studies link forgiveness and:

* Reduced blood pressure and stress hormone levels, especially among low-income blacks.

* Less pain, depression and anger in patients with chronic back pain.

* Fewer relapses in women in substance abuse programs.

* Fewer symptoms of depression and stress, and higher quality of life, in HIV/AIDS patients.

People often don't understand forgiveness, says Suzanne Freedman, a psychologist at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls who will talk about public perceptions.

''They react negatively when they hear the word, because they think it means what the offender did was OK.'' Forgiveness does not imply acceptance of the hurt, or forgetting what happened or reconciling with someone who is still inflicting pain, she says.

Dissenters say the benefits of and need for forgiveness are being oversold. ''We see forgiveness as some kind of a Holy Grail,'' says psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of Forgiving & Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not To Forgive. ''The idea is just embedded in our culture. What does that do to people who cannot forgive? They think 'I'm a monster if I can't do it, and it will be bad for my blood pressure and I'll give myself cancer.' ''

Worthington agrees that not everyone has to forgive to move on. He can name 30 other ways people try to feel less angry, including attempting to shut out the hurt. But forgiveness ''isn't just removing the bad stuff. It's moving beyond that to adding the positive.''

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Last updated: 10/25/2003 - 10:42 AM