Researcher Connects Forgiveness and Health

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(Host) Broken marriages, troubled relationships, dysfunctional childhoods. Getting over the hurt isn’t easy, but recent studies have shown that people who learn how to forgive say they feel better. A scientist in Burlington hopes to take those findings one-step further, and show that forgiving actually causes a physical response in the body as well.

VPR’s Nina Keck has more.

(Keck) Recent studies at Stanford University, in California, found that people who were taught techniques for forgiving said they felt their original hurt less intensely. They also reported feeling less stress and said they’d be more likely to forgive a past hurt. People in the control groups – who did not receive the forgiveness training – saw no change.

Sam Standard is a PhD candidate at Stanford who’s finishing his studies in counseling psychology at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He says research into forgiveness is important, because he says for many people, hurts that go unresolved can cause years of pain:

(Stanard) "A lot of the negativity, a lot of the irritation that people often play over and over again in their minds has to do with being slighted, being offended in some way. And the belief is that if you can address the upstream issue – the core forgiveness issue – then a lot of things that come later on, like anxiety and depression, difficulty managing anger and so on will not appear."

(Keck) If forgiveness training makes people feel better emotionally, Standard believes there may be a physiological response as well. To find out, the graduate student designed a six-week study that’s now underway in Burlington. Sixty-eight participants are learning a brief intervention technique designed to help them forgive something that happened to them in the past.

Throughout the study, Standard will take several saliva samples from each participant to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone the body releases when it’s stressed. Standard says high levels of cortisol are bad for the body and are associated with diabetes and hypertension:

(Stanard) "What I’m interested in knowing is if people go through forgiveness training, are they also going to show reductions in levels of cortisol as well. If they are it’s kind of a big deal because it means potentially that there’s a way to buffer the negative physiological effects of anger, hurt and resentment."

(Keck) In other words, Standard wants to show that forgiving can improve the health of the mind and the body.

(Lamb) "What his study isn’t showing is that it’s forgiveness, per se, that’s lowering cortisol."

(Keck) Sharon Lamb is a professor of psychology at St. Michael’s College. She’s also co-editor of a book that cautions the use of forgiveness in psychotherapy. Lamb says most therapists already know that helping a person reduce their stress lowers their cortisol. What’s harder to pinpoint, she says, is whether stress levels drop because a person learns to forgive or because they’ve learned other ways to work through their anger:

(Lamb) "And my difficulty with these types of experiments is that they don’t differentiate between those two things. You can let go of a grudge by getting distance from it and saying ‘that doesn’t matter to me anymore.’ And then somebody could still ask you ‘do you forgive that person?’ and you could say, oh absolutely not."

(Keck) Sharon Lamb says in order for Standard to make his point, he needs a better control group – one made up of people who work through their anger, yet choose not to forgive. Researcher Sam Standard says finding such a group would be difficult. He believes there are probably very few people who have let go of a grudge and worked through their anger, yet who have not begun the forgiveness process.

Among therapists, opinions vary on the merits of forgiveness. Experts like Lamb for example, believe forgiving often becomes a quick fix – one that doesn’t hold the perpetrator accountable. But Standard believes forgiving is beneficial to most people and he hopes his study will help reinforce that idea. Psychiatrists and therapists will be able to judge for themselves when the results are published and reviewed by peers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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