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A conversation with Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin on forgiveness and its health benefits

Last month, we introduced a Scope feature that gives readers the opportunity to ask questions of our medical school faculty and researchers. Fred Luskin, PhD, a research associate at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and co-founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, served as our first guest and took questions about why forgiveness is important for health.

Below Luskin responds to a selection of questions submitted via the @SUMedicine Twitter feed using the hashtag #AskSUMed and the comments section on Scope.

Preethi Reddy Chintha asks: What is forgiveness? What does it mean to be able to forgive?

Forgiveness is making peace with not getting what you wanted. It is an open-hearted way of being in your life even though a piece of it turned out differently than you hoped. It is to say something was painful and unwanted but I am not stuck in such remembrance.

@lap201156 asks: What does one need to do to get through the layers of hurt, anger, etc. to get to forgiveness?

First, feel the pain in it's changing experience. Second, be clear about what happened to you including the harm done. Third, tell a couple of trusted people about your experience. Fourth, make the decision to forgive. Fifth, practice being at peace for moments at a time and do so regularly. Sixth, understand the choice to forgive continues with daily practice.

Kritika asks: How can the failure to forgive increase a person's risk of heart disease and mental illness?

If a person doesn't learn to forgive, he or she will lose a sense of efficacy at dealing with life's hurts. The individual may also tend to become less trusting because they have not found a source of peace within themselves. If there is a physical stress part of the upset, the person may also suffer from stress-related illnesses.

The effects of unregulated stress arising from ongoing negative affect and cognitions, which impacts the nervous, endocrine and cardiovascular systems, can increase a person's risk of heart disease and mental illness. In addition, the inability to manage one's emotions leads to helplessness and despair. The mind-body effect can be cumulative and impact, weaken or damage parts of the body. Our work has demonstrated that.

@tracysherman asks: Is forgiveness trainable?

All of our work at the Stanford Forgiveness Project has been to show that one can teach people to forgive. We have done so in a variety of situations and with a variety of offenses, including in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, and the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Our research has shown over and over we can teach people to forgive.

Debra asks: Is there a way to use the concept/approach of forgiveness as a discussion point for people who find themselves resistant to letting things go?

I do so all of the time. Forgiveness can be posited as one's response to hurt when one is stuck in a helpless victim perspective. That is when one is stuck in a response to hurt that is not successful at solving the problem or bringing one peace. It is at that point that forgiveness can be offered as an alternative.

Next week, we'll begin accepting questions for the second #AskSUMed conversation. Stay tuned for the announcement of the upcoming health topic and guest medical expert.

Previously: Workplace stress and how it influences health, Teaching children the importance of forgiveness, Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin taking questions on the health benefits of forgiving, How laughter, anger may influence heart health, No surprise here: Anger and stress are bad for your health
Photo by Wil Kristin

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