A Buddha teaching states: "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned." When someone hurts us, we can hold onto anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge; or we can forgive. We can let go of the burning hot coal and, instead, embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy.
During this time of the year, with the holidays of Passover and Easter approaching, we are reminded of the spiritual importance of forgiveness. But forgiveness also has emotional and physiological effects on us. In fact, brain imaging scans show that just the thought of forgiving someone increases blood flow to areas of the brain that regulate emotional responses, moral judgments, perceptions of physical pain and decision-making. And, there is abundant research to show forgiveness goes beyond the ethereal and affects our physical well-being.
With that in mind, here is Dr. Nina's What You Need To Know about forgiveness and how it can help us live longer and healthier lives:
Reduced stress and anxiety: Anger releases the same hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - seen during a "fight or flight" situation. While having our muscles tense, our blood pressure increase and our pores sweat is a natural, primal response to predators, if this reaction is re-lived over and over again, it can cause anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, studies also have shown letting go of a grudge lowers the risk of alcohol and substance abuse.
Better heart health: Finding forgiveness in our heart will benefit our heart. Studies have shown forgiving someone decreases our blood pressure and heart rate, and subsequently decreases the amount of work our heart must perform. In fact, chronic stress makes platelets "sticky." This means they are more likely to clot or bunch together and block off blood flow to our heart or brain, which can result in a heart attack or stroke, respectively.
Reduced pain: Take two pills, forgive the unforgiveable, and call me in the morning. Studies have shown forgiveness can decrease the level of pain in people who suffer from chronic back pain. While the mechanism for this is not yet clear, this opens up alternative avenues for treatment. It could lift the weight off our aching back.
The problem is that, as C.S. Lewis observed: "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive." Additionally, there is no manual to help us maneuver through it. Experts in the field have made some helpful recommendations:
Commit to let it go. Forgiveness is an active process, not something that will just happen.
We have the right to choose. We cannot control others' actions or thoughts, but we can control ours. We can choose to stop re-living the pain and moving on. And most of the time, we are the only ones suffering; the offender is fine and living their life.
Know your role. It is seldom the case that one person is 100 percent innocent. Therefore, it is important to know what we could have done to prevent what happened. This can help us move beyond feeling like a victim.
Learn from the past, live in the present, believe in the future. The past is no longer happening, except in our minds. When we start thinking about the past, acknowledge it, and return to the present.
Welcome peace. Whether it is meditation, therapy, prayer, deep breathing or exercising, these actions help clear our minds and allow peace to enter.
Empathize and feel compassion. Trying to see things from the offender's point of view can help us understand the situation better and feel compassion for them. We are not excusing their actions, or condoning them, but we are allowing ourselves to be happy and move on. Let love for them, and, more importantly, ourselves, grow in our hearts.
A grudge functions much like cancer; if we don't remove it with clear margins, it will grow and may be the death of us. And while we may be in the process of forgiving and letting go of the negativity remember that old George Bernard Shaw saying: "Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it."
Dr Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions on general medical topics to her at firstname.lastname@example.org