The Science of Forgiveness

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Cancer treatments have a tendency to focus on the physical components: therapies meant to attack the disease head on, diffuse side-effects, and boost your immune system. However, it is important to also focus on the mental and emotional aspects that are directly involved in the cancer battle. Therapies like laughter therapy are arguably just as important to a patient’s overall well-being as hyperbaric oxygen therapiesThis is because cancer needs to be attacked from all angles, and this includes your mental and emotional ability to be resilient, focused, and empowered, not just your body’s physical ability to fight the disease.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you face a lot of change. Your daily schedule changes, your habits change, and your priorities change. However, the people around you may also change, and one skill that may help you adapt to that is the ability to forgive. For example, scientific“studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”[1] 

Therefore, forgiveness is a skill that can provide tremendous value to you on your cancer journey: it can assist making peace with others as well as your past, present, and future.

Forgiveness in Practice: A Scientific Perspective

It is important to note that forgiveness is an action; that is, it is much larger than the phrase “I’m sorry” and as such, has grander results that affect you and the situation in a positive way.

Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital,found that forgiveness “is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not… As you release the anger, resentment and hostility, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you.”

A 1998 study conducted at Stanford University as part of the Stanford Forgiveness Project:

 “demonstrated that normal college students could become significantly less angry and hurt, feel more hopeful, spiritually content and self-efficacious about managing their emotions and also become more forgiving after a six-hour training session. Moreover, the psychosocial gains were stable over a 10-week follow-up period.”

This is significant because forgiveness can directly affect you and your cancer journey in a positive way, as it has been scientifically found to be “beneficial for physical health [in] that it deepens and promotes interpersonal relationships. Another possibility is that forgiveness is a form of religious expression or may be an indication of a positive spiritual experience. There exist a number of studies that attest to the beneficial effect that positive relationships and good social ties have on indices of physical health.” You can mirror these results in your life as you begin practicing forgiveness. 

Tips for Forgiveness

One of the most critical components of a cancer patient’s journey is that they have a solid support system to lean on throughout the way. However, no one is perfect, and as such, it is important to practice and develop forgiveness whenever necessary. Forgiveness can occur through various avenues, from an emotionally- deep verbal conversation, to a simple note left on the bed. Nevertheless, “research has suggested they all have 3 common components: [2]

  1. Gaining a more balanced view of the offender and the event

  2. Decreasing negative feelings towards the offender and potentially increasing compassion

  3. Giving up the right to punish the offender further or to demand restitution 

Forgiveness ins a process that often takes time. While after reading this blog, you may feel as though you must immediately forgive someone who wrongs you in order to move on, this is not true: “we don't want to deny ourselves the right and the opportunity to feel the feelings of hurt and betrayal. We can only work through that which we first acknowledge.” As such, “forgiveness can involve drawing boundaries for yourself and simply figuring out what that boundary is. The biggest aspect will involve going through the impact the betrayal had on your life…  You cannot get to a place of acceptance without going through these hard parts. This can involve understanding what the factors were contributing to the betrayal and coping with what that means for having a future relationship.”

You can practice forgiveness directly with the other party involved, through open communication, or you can practice forgiveness individually and introspectively. By this, you can write a note to the person who wronged you, explaining what hurt and why things went wrong, and then storing or throwing the letter away: you do not have to send it. This is part of the beauty and power of forgiveness: you are in control of how you forgive, when you forgive, and why you choose to forgive. The important part is that you do so when you are ready to, thus making peace with the situation and enabling your ability to move on fully.

Final Thoughts

Forgiveness may not medically rid your body of cancer, but it is a powerful medicine that can provide you with inner-peace and the ability to strengthen your bonds with members of your cancer community and support system. Forgiveness is a unique medicine in that you have complete control over it: you control how often you utilize it and whom you use it with, and you often feel the positive results immediately. It is a tool that assists you in “managing life's inevitable hurts and using forgiveness to make peace with the past,” and thus should be seen as a trait with incredible “psychosocial and physiological value.”[3]

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[1]“Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It.” John Hopkins Medicine.

[2]Khoddam, Rubin. “The Psychology of Forgiveness.” Psychology Today. 2014.

[3]Frederic Luskin, PhD. “The Art and Science of Forgiveness.” Stanford Medicine. 1999.

CMN Hospital