Forgiveness May Be The Key To Better Mental Health

In his 1998 novel "Veronika Decides to Die," bestselling author Paulo Coelho examines the idea of madness, and the toll that conforming to life's strict guidelines can take on the human spirit. After a failed attempt on her own life, 24 year old Veronika lands herself in a Slovenic mental institution where she unwittingly becomes the subject of Dr. Igor's scientific study. It's Dr. Igor's mission to find a cure for mental illness, and it's his belief that the only way to do so is to rid the body of Vitriol — a poison that's released by the human organism in times of fear. Outside of Coelho's imaginary world, we recognize this poison by a different name: bitterness.

Whether it's pinpointed as the root cause of mental illness or is simply an unfortunate byproduct of it, Psychology Today suggests that bitterness does, in fact, play a role in most cases of mental illness. Harley Therapy explains that in clinical psychology, embitterment is defined as not only harboring feelings of outrage, but feeling helpless against changing the circumstances that produced the outrage in the first place. Prolonged embitterment can take a toll on one's personality, relationships, and mental capacity — even negatively impacting appetite, sleep, and sex drive.

Lucky for us, we need not participate in a scientific study in order to learn the benefits of ridding ourselves of bitterness, for those studies have already been done. And what they've discovered is that practicing forgiveness is the key to an improved mental state.

Forgiveness and mental health

Life is filled with injustices big and small. When we are wronged by someone, it can elicit feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, and the like. And while these are perfectly normal responses to being slighted, the Mayo Clinic points out that when we hold grudges as a defense mechanism, what we're really doing is living in a loop of the initial emotional injury. By acting from this place of pain, we inhibit ourselves from relishing in the present, prevent future connection with others, and may feel at odds with our true self or our belief systems, all of which can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and irritability.

However, a new 2023 study discovered that practicing forgiveness may act as a "cure" for these feelings. The study — which was preprinted for an interdisciplinary conference on forgiveness at Harvard University and is still under review for publication — included 4,598 participants spanning across Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ukraine, Colombia, and South Africa. Half of the participants were asked to complete a workbook designed by psychologist Everett L. Worthington, which prompted them to confront their resentment and offered exercises to help them achieve forgiveness through empathy. After two weeks, it was discovered that those who completed the workbook experienced an improvement in symptoms related to depression and anxiety and an overall enhanced state of well-being.

Forgiveness and physical health

While it's easy to understand how harboring feelings of resentment can take a toll on our mental health, some people may be surprised to learn that living with negative emotions can have a profound effect on our physical health as well. Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that chronic anger puts the body in a constant state of "fight or flight," increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and decreasing immune response, which can contribute to the incidence of conditions like heart disease and diabetes. In fact, a 2009 review published in the Journal of The American College of Cardiology discovered that anger increased the incidence of heart disease in healthy people, and worsened the prognoses of those already living with cardiovascular illnesses.

Psychologists like Worthington believe that forgiveness is the antidote to these stress-induced health problems, and a 2019 meta-analysis published in Psychology & Health concluded as much, discovering that the act of forgiving our offenders has the ability to improve cholesterol, hypertension, heart health, sleep quality, and physical pain, as well as symptoms related to conditions like HIV, lupus, and fibromyalgia (per Psychology Today).

If you're looking to lighten your load and try your hand at improving your mental and physical health by learning how to forgive those who have wronged you, Worthington has made his forgiveness workbook free for public download.