About 25 years ago, social scientists knew virtually nothing about how forgiveness might be related to physical and mental health. Today, forgiveness and health expert Loren L. Toussaint can say there are tangible, positive benefits.
“I think everyone is innately interested and in need of forgiveness in some way, shape or form,” Toussaint told the Church News.
“It is perhaps one of those things that is just part of the very fabric of our humanity, is that we both need forgiveness and we need to give it, and we need to do so freely. I think in the years that I’ve spent studying and teaching about forgiveness, that has become immensely clear — it is truly a human experience that applies to all of us.”
A professor of psychology at Luther College, Toussaint is also the chair of the Discover Forgiveness Advisory Council for Templeton World Charity Foundation and president of the Forgiveness Foundation.
1. Forgiveness can help you cope with stress
Stress is an adaptive response that is good for people, Toussaint said, but it’s not meant to always be activated. “Being kind of stubbornly angry about something that happened 10 years ago between you and someone else exposes your body to a lot of the ... ongoing stress that we don’t really need.”
The increase in stress hormones affects how one’s heart and other organs function and creates additional muscular tension, he explained. “It does things in our brain that’s not particularly helpful for us. …
“The idea of forgiveness being connected to our physical health largely has to do with our ability to reduce our stressful responses to being hurt. And forgiveness is really good at that. It’s a calming response to being hurt that helps us soothe those negative emotions, helps us cope effectively with a stressful experience and really attenuates, it dials down, the intensity of those negative responses that have such a toll on our physical well-being.”
2. Forgiveness can help you avoid the tendency to ruminate
Research has found that when someone is offended or hurt, it can be difficult for them to get their mind off what happened. “In psychological science, we call this the process of rumination,” Toussaint said.
“We just keep thinking and rethinking and overthinking and reanalyzing. It just becomes this kind of vortex that we get sucked into. And through that process, we end up having some pretty negative impacts on our mental health. …
“The interesting thing about forgiveness is that it helps us to kind of quiet that tendency to keep ruminating and to keep going over this again and again and overanalyzing it. And that means that we’re kind of breaking that mechanism that carries us to this kind of bad place.”
One aspect of forgiveness intervention work is making the decision to forgive — deciding to let it go and not get hung up on it. “And that is really beneficial for our mental health, for obvious reasons, because you’re not carrying the weight of that thing and thinking about it all day long,” he said.
3. Forgiveness can help you live ‘your fullest life’
When asked for his advice for anyone who needs to seek or offer forgiveness, Toussaint said be open. “Remain open to the possibility that you can be forgiven … and remain open to the possibility that you can forgive.”
“Forgiveness just touches us in ways that I don’t think we’ve even begun to fully capture,” he added. “There are so many positives. We’ve talked about mental and physical health, but we haven’t mentioned the benefits to happiness and improvements in quality of life, the help that it offers people who are in both physical and emotional pain, the ability to help reduce the weight of trauma.
“Forgiveness is just one of these things that goes hand in hand with really living your fullest life and flourishing wherever you are at, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with. And so, that’s my hope and prayer for everyone, is that they consider forgiveness, they value it and they experience the true benefits of forgiveness.”