Holding a Grudge Can Make You Sick
In 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?
The 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 of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and associate professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. “You’re letting them off the hook of your negativity and reactivity to what they did.”
“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.”
To effectively forgive someone, Luskin says, it’s important to keep forgiveness independent of the offense. Think of it more like a personal process for your own well-being. “The work I’ve done is directed toward forgiveness as an inner state that can be accessed — a latent quality inherent in all humans,” he says. “When people practice it, it can serve as an antidote to threat-based responses like revenge, bitterness, and anger.”
For most people, a forgiving response doesn’t come naturally. For example, if someone hit your car and drove off five years ago, you may still feel fear toward other drivers, or anger toward that driver in particular. But dwelling on that old offense will just make you more fearful and bitter in the long-run, which means it’s important to find a healthier, alternative way of being. “Forgiveness is a biological and cultural alternative to the more primitive responses hardwired in us, and it usually takes some volitional input,” Luskin says.
Because being wronged by someone triggers both physical and emotional responses, Luskin says forgiveness requires an equally mind-body approach. You have to calm your body and rewire your mind to really let go of offenses.
“You can’t do this kind of remediation without work on the nervous system, emotional work, and cognitive work — it’s a whole body experience,” he says. To counter unforgiveness and its effects, Luskin teaches mind-body practices like meditation, along with cognitive approaches like therapy. “Some people have better portals of entry through one or the other, but the more parts of the brain one can engage, the more likely it will stick.”
Often, Luskin says, our minds and bodies try to protect us from risk through residual feelings of bitterness or the associated physical response of fear. But it’s important to remind yourself those things don’t imply something horrible is going to happen. If your grandma was terrible to you when you were a child, your nervous system might try to protect you; but that doesn’t mean she needs to be feared anymore.
When we can focus on cultivating a more positive mindset, Luskin says our minds and bodies will begin to see things more clearly instead of misperceiving old situations — and we’ll begin to see forgiveness more as a shift in the narrative we’ve created around an event. “We’re wired to misperceive reality, so we can hold onto threats for years, even though they have long passed,” he says. “This world has so much beauty in it, but if you don’t actively look for it, your nervous system will find danger all the time.”
Just as unforgiveness and bitterness can negatively impact health, research shows forgiving someone can be just as powerful. Many of the positive outcomes are psychological — forgiveness is a form of emotional regulation, since forgiving someone is an alternative to negative thought processes like ruminating on offenses or holding in negative feelings, both of which can lead to chronic stress.
It makes sense that choosing not to be bitter would make you feel happier: In a 2015 study Toussaint found that forgiving others is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility and higher positive emotion and satisfaction with life.
One 2018 study on religiously or spiritually-motivated forgiveness found that the more people forgave, the greater their psychosocial well-being and the lower their mental distress. Greater forgiveness was also associated with higher life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
But there’s also plenty of evidence that physical health is a byproduct of better mental health. Toussaint’s 2016 study suggests that forgiving someone is an antidote to stress, which can improve mental and physical health, and his most recent research demonstrates letting go of grudges can also help people sleep better. Other studies show forgiveness can lead to the reduction of harmful lifestyle factors like nicotine dependence and substance abuse.
These benefits are the reason Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, believes forgiving someone is a public health issue. Because forgiving someone is so linked with mental health — VanderWeele says it promotes “wholeness of mind and better mental health” — to not address forgiveness leaves people “trapped in resentment, in negative feelings, and in rumination of the past.”
To facilitate forgiveness on a larger scale, VanderWeele suggests an increased public focus on forgiveness models like REACH, which can be easily taught with classes and workbooks. On a personal level, Toussaint says people who want to reap the benefits of forgiveness should start with cultivating empathy by putting yourself in the offender’s shoes. An empathetic mindset won’t just help you forgive someone who’s already wronged you — it might also prime you for future offenses by making you a more understanding person.
Being offended might happen in a moment, but forgiveness, whether on an individual or public level, takes time. Thankfully, forgiveness doesn’t require a punishment, or even that the wrongdoer recognizes his or her wrong. The important part is — for your health and general well-being — releasing yourself from the grip of an offense, and moving forward in empathy, when rage might be the easier option.