Holding a Grudge Can Make You Sick

How your health depends on forgiveness

Ashley Abramson
Elemental
Published in
6 min readNov 20, 2019

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Photo credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images

InIn a world where connection can happen instantaneously, grudges can, too. Whether you unleash rage on an online offender or harbor decades of silent bitterness against a family member, ill will can feel gratifying. But a growing body of research suggests unforgiveness — especially when it’s associated with long-term stress — can be just as toxic for the grudge-holder.

Loren Toussaint, PhD, professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, has extensively studied forgiveness and its effects. While unforgiveness, by definition, might seem like merely a lack of forgiveness, Toussaint says it’s more like a mix of several potentially harmful emotions.

“With unforgiveness, you’ve actually cooked up a brew of bitterness, hostility, and revenge, a unique combination of emotions that surround your experience of being wronged, and that are virtually indistinguishable from stress,” he says. “And anything that triggers the stress response isn’t good for you.”

Perceiving we’ve been wronged or ruminating on anger keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight, where the brain triggers autonomic defense responses in the body (like a racing heart, slowed digestion, and sweaty palms).

Fight-or-flight mode is an evolutionarily adaptive response to stress, meant for our survival, but we’re not meant to remain in it long-term. Staying in a state of chronic stress can result in anxiety, depression, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, weight gain, a weakened immune response, and even heart problems. “As you get stressed, you not only begin to feel mentally poor. Your physical health also takes a hit, largely because you elicit physiological responses you can’t maintain in a healthy way for a long period of time,” Toussaint says.

If unforgiveness leads to this spiral of negative health effects, then forgiveness is the antidote. But what, exactly, does it mean to forgive?

TThe first thing to know about forgiving someone: Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re not holding them accountable for their actions. “You’re not letting someone off the hook of their child support payment or their prison term or the fact that you don’t think they did the right thing,” says Fred Luskin, PhD director…

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Ashley Abramson
Elemental

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.