Methods to improve your emotional health and time with family and friends
During the holiday season, as we reunite with family, friends, and loved ones, it may be difficult to face unresolved relationship struggles, or be with those with whom we may not always see eye to eye. Social gatherings can create an awkward proximity to those who have caused us discomfort or pain, leaving us tense or frustrated and wanting to disengage.
Instead of sitting this one out, this could be a chance for you to ‘sit-in’ with yourself for a moment to come to terms with the difficult situations that you have endured, with the intention to transform your feelings of disharmony into tenacity and strength. A method to do this is the practice of forgiveness.
Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital states, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.” Johns Hopkins Medicine further describes that, “Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and an immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
We don’t need to forget, but we can choose to forgive. We can feel anger, sadness, hurt and pain, and then we can decide if we want to forgive. It’s our choice and it’s one of the greatest choices we have. Celebrated author, Don Miguel Ruiz of The Four Agreements, writes, “Forgiveness is for your own mental healing. You forgive because you feel compassion for yourself. Forgiveness is an act of self-love.”
Transforming how we feel about the past can change how we frame our future. It can give us the opportunity to make room to heal, reconcile, or foster new, trusting relationships with others. Forgiveness can help us step out of our story, step back into our power, and free ourselves from shame, bitterness, resentment and hurt.
The health benefits of forgiveness
The Mayo Clinic suggests that, “Forgiveness, can lead to healthier relationships, improved mental health, less stress and reduced hostility.” The dilemmas that cause us mental and emotional anguish and stress, exhaust our nervous system and deplete our energy. Over time, these prolonged emotional and mental states can erode our health and well-being, leaving us fatigued. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, of Psychology Today, writes, “People who forgive more readily are less likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to be happy. These physical and psychological qualities could all be key in predicting a longer life. The way you respond when you feel wronged, or when you seek even forgiveness of yourself, has a variety of health-boosting effects.”
Research also shows that forgiveness can affect our mental perception and our physical strength. When we let go of the burden of our troubles and feel a sense of forgiveness, we can literally “perceive hills to be less steep, and jump higher in an ostensible fitness test.” The research goes on to demonstrate that “forgivers perceive a less daunting world, and perform better on challenging physical tasks.” This illustrates that forgiveness can literally lighten the physical burdens we bear and shift our perception to redeem hope for what is possible, making physical tasks more achievable and life goals within reach.
Forgiveness does not pardon the perpetrator, but it does gives us strength to move forward, to express compassion and to let go of the negative feelings that we are holding onto. Truly letting go takes time and begins with one step, so it’s important to seek the right counsel to support what you need as you go through your process.
Karen Swartz, M.D. at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, breaks down the process of forgiveness into 4 parts: “Forgiveness training is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, but the goal is the same: Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.”
Identify the problem(s)
Practice relaxation techniques
Observe and challenge your own responses
Transform your perception to positive outlook
Here are also a few tips that can help.
Honour your feelings without judgement and allow yourself to feel fully or grieve as a means to let go. Establish what forgiveness means to you. Remember that forgiveness does not depend on the other person’s response to your forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean that you need to reconcile, it could simply mean that you are ready to let go and move on. Know that forgiveness is a practice to help you and recognize if there is the need to self-forgive. If you feel that you need to forgive yourself, do so with compassion and love and try not to self-blame.
Surround yourself with people that care about you and support you. Forgiveness does not mean that we remain alone in a conflicted or toxic situation. It is a means that you acknowledge your experiences and heal with the help of balanced and healthy relationships around you.
Write out your story as a witness. Examine the story, reflect and contemplate the circumstance from the witness perspective of all characters and actions involved. Then, see if you can separate the emotions from the characters and observe how you feel about the emotions, and then, how you feel about the characters. This creates the opportunity to see the story from another perspective in order to gain more clarity. Next, write out the story a second time with a resolution where you are able to feel empowered and resolved. This will help you to understand your expectations and may give the story a different perspective or meaning.
Take time and space for yourself. Remember to focus on what you love and your intention to heal. This can also help you to get centred, gain perspective and focus on the positive aspects of your life. If you feel conflicted, contemplate, “Is there is a benefit to holding onto the anger, shame, fear or pain?” Observe your answers without judgement. Ask yourself, “What would it mean if I forgave?” Remember that forgiveness does not mean that you agree with what has happened or that you approve of it. There can still be justice if you choose to forgive.
Depending on your experiences, you may want to seek counsel and advice from friends, a therapist, family or a counsellor.