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Forgiveness Affects Health

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

The old adage, “forgive and forget,” could be good advice for the body as well as for the mind and heart.

This is according to Kathleen Row, the chair of the psychology department at East Carolina University, who studies correlations between a person’s health and the ability to forgive.

Row, who arrived at ECU this semester from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has been studying the forgiveness question, and how it relates to spirituality, well being and health, for the past seven years.

“Some people would like to forgive and they can’t; but they still see it as a value. Religions treat it as a value,” Row said. “From a psychological perspective, instead of moral or spiritual value, does forgiveness have a physical value?”

Row’s research has shown a marked difference in the blood pressure and heart rate recovery levels of those who can more easily forgive compared to those who cannot. “You literally carry it around with you,” Row said.

“If you had a heavy sack on your back, your blood pressure would rise to let you be able to carry it around with you. My question is, how is forgiveness mapped onto the body?”

For her research, Row asks participants to fill out a questionnaire about forgiveness. In a one-on-one meeting, the participant, hooked up to heart rate and blood pressure monitors, is asked to recount a time when he or she had been wronged or betrayed.

“One finding is that people with a more forgiving personality will struggle to tell a story about a time when someone hurt them,” she said. “Other people will say, ‘Where do you want me to start?’”

The blood pressure and heart rates of everyone who interviewed rises as they recount their betrayal, Row said, but those who had forgiven the wrongdoing showed a marked difference in returning more quickly to normal levels.

“We want to see what they are like when something negative happens to the body and afterwards. How long does it take to get back to the relaxed state?”

Row has found that older people, in general, are more likely to be forgiving, and that women are more likely to be forgiving in general than men, although men had shown to be more forgiving when considering specific situations.

For much of her 25-plus year career in psychophysiology, Row studied the mind-body connection of how certain behaviors could be predictors of cardiovascular disease.

“At some point, I realized I wanted to look at what psychological states could lead to lower blood pressure,” she said. “If you hold in anger, if you are competitive, what are you supposed to do? To be less of these things, what are ways to enhance healthy attitudes that can prevent cardiovascular disease?”

In 1999, Row received a grant that enabled her to extend her research to the question of forgiveness. Her work in the past seven years, she said, validates that forgiveness can yield positive benefits not only for the forgiven, but for the forgiver as well.

7/29/08
This page originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.