Sunday, November 16, 2014

Take a Forgiveness Pill

There is a pretty consistent finding in psychology that more the stressful experiences you have in your lifetime, the worse your mental and physical health will be. Thus, psychology and public health researchers have been dedicating time and money to figuring out what links stressful experiences to poor health, and what can buffer these effects. One psychological resource that has received attention is forgiveness. While the number of stressful life events you experience is related to more physical and mental health problems, the same is true for forgiveness in reverse. In other words, the more you forgive, the better your health.

Thus, Dr. Loren Touissant and colleagues were interested in clarifying whether forgiveness buffers the association between stressful life experiences and health. To do this, they recruited 148 undergraduate students and asked them to complete a life stress interview. This interview, the STRAIN developed by Dr. George Slavich at UCLA, takes under an hour and asks the participant about their exposure to up to 96 life events that can be stressful, as well as asks participants to rate these events in terms of severity, and provide detail on when these experiences occurred (e.g., during childhood or adulthood). These participants then completed the Heartland Forgiveness Scale. According to Wikipedia, Forgiveness is the voluntary or unintentional process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. 

In psychology, forgiveness can refer to either your amount of forgiveness in the context of a single experience, or your general tendency to be forgiving. For the purposes of this study, Dr. Touissant was interested in general tendency toward forgiveness, or “dispositional forgivingness.” Finally, the participants provided information on their mental and physical health at the time of the study.

The participants in the study, despite being college undergraduates were exposed to an average of 13 stressful life events, were fairly high on forgiveness (average score of 88 on a scale between 18-125), and had moderate symptoms for both physical and mental health. They found that, consistent with previous studies, more exposure to life stressors was related to poorer physical health and more mental health symptoms. Similarly, more forgiveness was related to fewer mental health symptoms and better physical health.  

They then tested whether having higher dispositional forgiveness buffered the association between life stress and health. They found that forgiveness and life stress independently predicted better physical health, and the forgiveness did not buffer the link between life stress and physical health symptoms. In contrast, they found that higher forgiveness did buffer the association between life stress and mental health. Specifically, participants who reported high levels of forgiveness showed no association between the number of stressful life events and their mental health, while participants with average or below average forgiveness had stronger associations between the amount of life stress and their mental health symptoms. 

One question that emerges from these findings is, “Why the difference in findings between physical and mental health?” Touissant’s argument in the article is that mental health problems are often related to recent stressors, while physical health problems develop over more time. In this sample of young adults, it is possible that the story may be different in 20 or 30 years, when there are more physical health problems for them to deal with. It’s also possible that life stress and psychological resources such as forgiveness independently influence our health across our lives. Regardless of the reason, these findings are good news.

Why is this good news? Often we can’t help how much stress we are exposed to. Children can’t control whether they are abused and neglected, we can’t prevent earthquakes and tornados, we can’t save everyone in our lives from getting sick and passing on. Stressful life events are a certainty. We can, however, develop effective skills and strategies for responding to and coping with stress. This study suggests that forgiveness is one skill we can learn, practice, and master in the service of our own health.

Despite the strengths of this study, this research has limitations. Most importantly, like most psychology research, this study is not causal. Since you cannot randomly assign people to receive a life filled with stress or a life void of it, there is no way to know whether stress causes mental and physical health problems in humans. The same goes for forgiveness. However, we can develop interventions on forgiveness to see whether teaching individuals how to practice forgiveness improves or even prevents physical and mental illness. This is certainly where the field is leading, so get excited!

In the mean time, you can explore your own forgiveness tendency by taking the Heartland Forgiveness Scale here, and finding creative ways to practice in your own daily life.

Toussaint, L., Shields, G. S., Dorn, G., & Slavich, G. M. (2014). Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. Journal of Health Psychology, 1359105314544132.

7 comments:

  1. Psychological changes affects the mood and the metal physique of the body and to avoid this mental disturbances one should try chiropractor services to have some relaxation in life.

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  2. A lot of people round us are suffering from the same disorder and if I look around as I have my own cousin who is in the same condition and living in a hostel no in her home but we took her for Amazingback pain Canberra relief because a doctor advised us to take her to an osteopath so that she can have some decrease in stress on her mind and her recovery will be early in time.

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  3. It is true that a weak can never forgive, we need to have a bigger heart and confidence in ourself that to whom we are forgiving we can never remind the incidence and will avoid the same in our future as well. I remember when one of my friend pushed me from stairs and I used to go Chiropractor near Dee Why but i forgave him and when I came back to school so there was more respect for me in his heart than ever before.

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