The Healing Power of Forgiveness: Why It Can Transform Your Life

Research reveals that pardoning others can heal you emotionally — and physically.

For weeks, Karsten Mathiasen had been consumed by rage. Several months earlier the Danish circus director’s wife had left him to live with another man. Overwhelmed with hatred for his wife’s new lover, the 40-year-old lay awake at night, a knot of pain growing in his stomach, angry thoughts swirling. He began drinking in the evenings to get to sleep.

Eventually, it was the concern of his two young children that persuaded Mathiasen he should meet this man towards whom he felt so much anger.

When the two met at a Copenhagen coffee shop, Mathiasen knew he would forgive his wife’s new partner. Instead of one cup of coffee, the two men had many, talking for hours.

As Mathiasen headed home, he was amazed to discover that his anger and sadness were gone. But more than that, he felt physically good—for the first time in months. He slept like a baby that night and awoke with a clear mind and relaxed body.

“Forgiveness was a great gift I gave myself,” says Mathiasen.

We often think of forgiveness as something we do for the sake of someone else, but new research shows that’s not the whole story.

“When people engage in forgiveness, it changes their physiology,” says Dr. Robert Enright. As the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and the author of The Forgiving Life and 8 Keys to Forgiveness, Enright has been researching the power of forgiveness for three decades. “Forgiveness helps you get rid of what we call toxic anger,” he says. “The type that can literally kill a person.”

In a study published in the journal Psychology and Health, Enright and his team examined the effects of forgiveness on heart health in cardiac patients. They found that those subjects who had engaged in forgiveness experienced significantly improved cardiac blood flow, even four months after the forgiving had taken place.

(Related: Learn how spirituality may also help cancer patients.)

Physiologically, these findings make sense. When thoughts of anger and revenge invade your brain, both halves of the autonomic nervous system are activated at once — the sympathetic, which charges you up, and also the parasympathetic, which calms you down. Think of the former as a car’s gas pedal and the latter as its brakes. What would happen if you slammed on the breaks while accelerating? You’d be in for a rough ride, and these are the stressful mixed messages that your heart and body receive when you are constantly feeling resentful.

(Related: Aside from forgiving someone, staying mindful can also help you ward off stress.)

And it’s not just the heart that can be healed. A study presented to the Society of Behavioral Medicine some years ago showed that forgiveness can help relieve sleeplessness, and a study conducted at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina found that forgiveness can strengthen the immune systems of patients with HIV. With every passing year, new research is revealing that forgiveness can help heal everything, even things like insomnia.

Rosalyn Boyce’s life unravelled after a man broke into her London home and raped her as her two-year-old daughter slept in the next room. Three weeks later the perpetrator, a serial rapist, was captured and given three life sentences.

But for Boyce the nightmare was far from over. The memory of the attack filled her mind constantly, and she was forced to move out of her family house to escape it. Eating became impossible. Doctors diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and reactive depression and prescribed Prozac and tranquilizers. She began drinking a bottle of wine every night to block things out.

As her mental and physical health deteriorated, Boyce realized she needed to heal herself. Through therapy and study, she discovered that the only way was to forgive her attacker.

“To me, forgiveness meant that I no longer had to feel any attachment to my rapist and I could free myself from that crime,” she writes. “Once I chose to perceive forgiveness in these terms, a massive burden was lifted.”

A few years later, Boyce was able to finally meet her attacker and forgive him face-to-face through a restorative justice program. “Afterwards, I was euphoric. I don’t think about the rape anymore. It disappeared in a puff of smoke.”

Few people have a better understanding of what forgiveness is than Marina Cantacuzino. A former journalist, Cantacuzino is the founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, a website and exhibition series which uses personal stories from around the world — including Boyce’s — to explore the limits and possibilities of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing,” explains the British woman, dispelling the myth that to forgive means to say what happened was acceptable. Another common misconception is that forgiveness demands reconciliation with the perpetrator — it does not. You can forgive and choose not to resume the relationship. Instead, forgiveness demands a reframing of the past — viewing the incident and perpetrator through a wider and more compassionate lens.

Cantacuzino also says that offering forgiveness does not mean giving up the right to justice. You can forgive someone, but they may still have to go to prison or pay a price for what they have done. One of her favourite definitions actually comes from a prison inmate: “Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.”

After moving from England to Lebanon in 1966 and watching as the country was torn apart for 15 years by civil war, Alexandra Asseily was consumed by her incredulity at humanity’s capacity for violence.

“I needed to forgive the people who brought Lebanon from being a lovely place to destroying it,” says the psychotherapist. She decided to spend time with men who’d been brutal combatants in the conflict. “When I could see them as human beings instead of monsters, I realized I had passed my own test.”

In 1984 she helped found the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University, England, where she strives to promote forgiveness as a tool for peace and healing. In her work, Asseily says she often encounters people who have become ill. She describes one woman living in Rome who has remained with her unfaithful husband for many years, and who is now dying of cancer.

“She is bitter, and I think she has eaten herself up inside,” says Asseily, though she acknowledges that a correlation between anger and cancer has not yet been scientifically demonstrated.

For Azaria Botta, a 33-year-old teaching assistant from Vancouver, Canada, it was a falling out with one of her best friends that opened her eyes to the healing powers of forgiveness. It was the summer of 2004, and Botta was off on a backpacking trip in Europe with one of her oldest friends. The two young women set off excitedly, travelling through the UK before arriving in Paris. It was there that Botta’s friend announced that she would be taking a week-long romantic trip with a young Columbian backpacker.

Botta was shocked and infuriated. She passed the week alone in Paris, filled with anger and disappointment. She also developed strange headaches along with an upset stomach. Botta continued to stew even after her friend returned to Paris showering her with apologies.

Back in Vancouver, Botta’s anger stayed with her — and so did her headaches and stomach pain. It was only after a pleading apology from her friends and a tearful reconciliation that Botta’s head finally cleared and her appetite returned. It was then she made the connection: her anger had been making her sick.

“I felt lighter,” says Botta. “Letting go of that anger was the first step.

Experts are adamant that there is no one specific path to forgiveness. “It’s different for everybody,” cautions Cantacuzino. Over the years, some people become worn down by hatred and fear and consciously decide to make a change. Others, she says, might meet someone like the offender or see television program that triggers them to think differently about the situation.

Robert Enright agrees that forgiveness can take many forms, but at its most basic, it is the offer of goodness to the one who has hurt you.

“This can take the form of respect, or a returned phone call, or a kind word about them to someone else,” he says. “The paradox is that as you have mercy on those who have no had mercy on you, you heal emotionally and — sometimes — physically.”

Next, learn how three women coped with their husbands’ infidelity.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada