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The Master Key to Freedom: Forgiveness

Those who know me laugh when I use the word forgiveness, because, according to them, I "harp" on the act of forgiving an awful lot. I cannot deny the truth in their statement. I talk about forgiveness often, that is certain. I consider it a foundational element of a healthy life, and I have also found in my work as a therapist that most people struggle with this in life, sometimes on a daily basis. So, I am a bit passionate about educating others and helping them find ways to forgive those who may have hurt them in some way. Forgive me! (hahaha) I am passionate about this concept because of the damage it has done in my own life, and the damage I have seen it do to others. I don't just believe holding on to unforgiveness will steal your joy, I believe it will steal your very life! Yes, you read that correctly: I believe unforgiveness can KILL you.

“Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” -Nelson Mandela

I am apparently not the only person who believes this. Upon doing a little research I have found a bevy of studies examining the relationship between forgiving and various aspects of physical and mental health. There are consequences on multiple levels when we hold onto anger, hatred, bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness. Medical science now classifies unforgiveness as a “disease.” Doctors are now aware of the reality that refusing to forgive others makes people sick and keeps them sick. Extensive work is published in this area by Dr. Steven Standiford, chief of surgery at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. You are more than welcome to do some research of your own, you will find an abundance of information out there linking disease and unforgiveness. This is because when we hold onto things in our emotional hearts and spirits, our spirit becomes sick. Unforgiveness is like poison to our spirit, and that poison seeps out into our minds and bodies, as well. Our spirits, minds, and bodies are so connected they are essentially ONE and one area always affects the others.

Dr. Michael Barry is quoted as saying, “Harboring these negative emotions, this anger and hatred, creates a state of chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety very predictably produces excess adrenaline and cortisol, which deplete the production of natural killer cells, which is your body’s foot soldier in the fight against cancer,” (2010, p. 84). With this realization at the forefront, medical professionals are now using “forgiveness therapy” to treat various diseases, including cancer. Dr. Michael Barry has conducted research in this area which reveals that of cancer patients that participated, 61% have forgiveness issues, more than half of which are severe forgiveness issues (2010). If you think about how we deal with hurt, anger, and unforgiveness in our lives it definitely makes sense that this would be an issue. You may replay the hurts in your mind for days, months, or even years after the event(s) occurred. In doing this you repeatedly re-experience the same anger, hurt, sadness, and frustration you experienced when the event first happened. This perpetual state prevents your heart from resting and you begin to suffer various physical and emotional issues as a result.

Many long-term illnesses are an outcome of unforgiveness, bitterness, and emotional stress. Chronic anger or fear lead to constant muscle tension which results over time in spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain (van der Kolk 2014). Anger is also known to lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, and heart disease. Nearly 20 years of research now link forgiveness with better psychological and physical health (Barry 2010). These studies showed significant decreases in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-esteem, and coping skills among people who practiced forgiveness in their lives. Karen Swartz, a psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins, also points out that forgiving reduces your risk of heart attack, improves your cholesterol levels as well as your sleep, reduces pain, blood pressure, anxiety levels, depression, and stress. “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” states Karen Swartz, M.D. (director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital). The aftereffects of this keep you in fight-or-flight mode which affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response over time. This increases your risks of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other conditions, but these changes can all be reversed by one simple act:


Now do you see why I put so much emphasis on forgiving?? I mean…if it were a food containing a toxic chemical known to cause cancer and disease wouldn’t we stop consuming it post-haste? But for some reason we treat offenses perpetrated by those around us in a completely different way. In essence, unforgiveness is like a silent, insidious killer, deteriorating our spirits and consuming us from the inside out. Knowing this, do you suddenly want to let a few things go? Stay tuned for my next article, Forgiving Those Who Hurt You, which will outline a simple process for forgiveness that I have found to be very effective. "Make allowance for each other's faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others" (Colossians 3:13 NLT).


Barry, Michael, Dr. The Forgiveness Project: The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace, 2010.

Godwin, Kristi, Dr. Healing Beyond Trauma, Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2018.

Koenig, Harold, McCullough, Michael, & Larson, David. The Handbook of Religion and Health, New York, NY:Oxford University Press, 2011. Miller, L, Wickramaratne, P., Tenke, C., & Weissman, M. (2012). Spirituality and Major Depression: A Ten-Year Prospective Study, American Journal of Psychiatry, 169 (1), 89-94.

Schwartz, Karen, Forgiveness: How Letting Go of Grudges is Good for Your Health. John Hopkins Health, Summer 2014.

Standiford, Steve, Cancer Treatment Center of America, Philiadelphia, PA, 2015.

Van der Kolk, B.A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking Press, 2014.

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