New research reveals that “letting go” and forgiving those who have wronged can help to heal you both emotionally and physically.
For weeks, Karsten Mathiasen had been consumed by rage. Several months earlier, his wife had left him for 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. He began drinking in the evenings to get to sleep.
Eventually, his concerned children persuaded Karsten he should meet this man, towards whom he felt so much anger.
When the two met at a Copenhagen coffee shop, Karsten knew he would forgive his wife’s new partner. Instead of one cup of coffee, the two men had many, talking for hours.
As Karsten 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.
“Forgiveness was a great gift I gave myself,” says Karsten. 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.
“It changes their physiology when people engage in forgiveness,” 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.
“It helps you get rid of what we call toxic anger,” he says. “The type that can literally kill a person.”
In a 2009 study published in the journal of 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.
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 the parasympathetic, which calms you down. Think of the former as a car’s accelerator and the latter as its brakes.
What would happen if you slammed on the brakes while accelerating? You’d be in for a rough ride, and these are the mixed messages your heart and body receive when you’re feeling constantly resentful.
A 2011 study presented to the Society of Behavioural Medicine showed that forgiveness can help relieve sleeplessness, and a study conducted at the 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 from insomnia to—maybe—cancer.
Rosalyn Boyce’s life unravelled in 1999 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 caught and given three life sentences.
But for Rosalyn, the nightmare was far from over. The memory of the attack filled her mind, and she was forced to move out of her family house to escape it.
Doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder 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, Rosalyn realised she would have to heal herself. Through therapy and her own study, Rosalyn 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 the crime. Once I chose to perceive forgiveness in these terms, a massive burden was lifted.”
In July 2014, Rosalyn was able to meet her attacker and forgive him face-to-face through a restorative-justice programme.
“Afterwards, I was euphoric,” she says. “I no longer think about the rape. It disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
Few have a better understanding of what forgiveness is than Marina Cantacuzino. A former journalist, Marina is the founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, a website and exhibition series that uses personal stories to explore the possibilities of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness isn’t 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 more compassionate lens.
Marina Cantacuzino also says that offering forgiveness doesn’t mean giving up the right to justice. You can forgive someone, but they may still have to go to prison or a pay a price for what they have done. One of her favourite definitions comes from a prison inmate: “Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.”
After moving from Britain 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.
“Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.”
“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 realised I’d passed my own test.”
In 1984 she helped to found the centre for Lebanese studies at Oxford University, where she strives to promote forgiveness as a tool for healing. In her work, Alexandra says she often encounters people who have become ill. She describes one woman living in Rome who’s stayed with her unfaithful husband for many years, and who’s now dying of cancer.
“She’s bitter—I think she’s eaten herself up inside,” says Alexandra, who acknowledges that a correlation between anger and cancer hasn’t yet been scientifically demonstrated.
That may not be the case for long. Robert Enright has teamed up with Slovakian oncologist Pavel Kotoucek on a study that will examine whether forgiveness can even help in the battle against cancer.
Kotoucek says he’s had many cases in Slovakia and Britain in which a patient’s bitterness appeared to be suppressing the immune system. “There’s strong evidence that if you can improve the immune profile of a cancer patient, you can control their cancer.”
The study is to take place across the continent through Myeloma Patients Europe, and will provide patients with guided forgiveness therapy alongside conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and marrow and stem-cell transplants.