Forgive your way to better health

By Fred Luskin, PhD

Stanford University Forgiveness Project

We all know that hostility increases risk for heart disease. But new research shows that forgiveness can moderate these dangerous effects on the heart. People who blame others for their problems have a higher incidence of chronic pain, cardiovascular disease and other ailments.

Why is forgiveness good for you? There are two primary reasons… Forgiveness reduces chronic stress. Self-generated, chronic stress triggers negative physical changes, including increased blood pressure and heart rate and decreased immune function, all of which eventually lead to disease.

Forgiveness increases one’s sense of control. Feeling in control is crucial to health. It moderates the stress response because one is less likely to panic and overreact to situations. Feeling helpless can make you ill. When you learn how to forgive, you develop the emotional confidence to “get over” any difficulty.

DEFINING FORGIVENESS. Being forgiving does not require you to be an emotional doormat. You don’t have to condone an unkindness…forget that something painful happened…excuse poor behaviour…and/or deny or minimize your hurt.

Forgiveness is for you, not the offender. It prevents you from wasting energy by being trapped in anger. What then is forgiveness? It is the feeling of peace that you experience when you understand and accept that life doesn’t always give you what you want…that you don’t have to take a hurt so personally…that bad things need not ruin your present, even if they spoiled a part of your past.

HOW TO FORGIVE. Forgiveness is a skill. As with any skill, it requires practice to learn. Use these techniques to master forgiving…

  • Change the channel. First, take responsibility for how you feel.
  • Even though you are hurt, try to appreciate the good in your life.
  • Rather than rehashing your grievances, focus on gratitude, love and appreciation of beauty.
  • Imagine that what you see in your mind is being viewed on a TV screen. Perhaps you are stuck on the Grievance Channel.
  • Reprogram your remote control to…Gratitude Channel. As you wake up in the morning, give thanks for your breath and the gift of your life. Love Channel. Look for people who are in love, and smile at their happiness. Call up a few close friends, and tell them you care about them.Beauty Channel. Find a favorite spot in nature. In times of stress, remember what that spot looks and feels like.
  • Calm down. Learn to maintain your sense of peace in any situation, no matter how upsetting.
  • Challenge your unenforceable rules. An “unenforceable rule” is a desire that you think must come true, but that you don’t have control over. This combination can make you feel helpless, mad, hurt and frustrated. You can eventually become bitter and hopeless. Common unenforceable rules include: People must not lie to me…life should be fair…people have to treat me with kindness…my life has to be easy…my parents should have treated me better.

If an unenforceable rule is “broken,” here are six steps to follow…

  1. Recognize that you feel hurt, angry, alienated, depressed or hopeless. Acknowledge that your feelings may stem from memories of the past but that you are experiencing them in the present.
  2. Remind yourself that you feel bad only because you are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.
  3. Assert your willingness to challenge your unenforceable rule.
  4. Ask yourself the following question: “What experience in my life am I thinking of right now that I am demanding to be different?” This is your unenforceable rule.
  5. Change your attitude from demanding things go your way to strongly hoping you get what you want.
  6. Use that hope to motivate yourself toward finding practical solutions. When you temper your unenforceable rules, you think more clearly and feel more peaceful. This is the essence of forgiveness.

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