How Forgiveness Impacts Mental Health and Relieves Stress

Forgiveness can benefit our mental health and lower stress.

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Forgiving someone who has wronged us is beneficial to our mental health and is associated with lower levels of stress.

The true meaning of forgiveness is intentionally deciding to let go of anger and resentment and feeling empathy and compassion for the person who hurt us. 

This article explores the true meaning of forgiveness, how it affects mental health, and tips for those who struggle to forgive others—and themselves.

What Is the True Meaning of Forgiveness?

We’ve all been hurt by someone’s words or actions; however, moving on or ignoring what happened does not mean we have forgiven them.

The true meaning of forgiveness is intentionally deciding to let go of anger and resentment and feeling empathy and compassion for the person who hurt us. 

The abuse or harmful behavior may still be unacceptable and not forgiven—but if you can empathize with the pain or circumstances the person was facing—your resentment and agony could decrease with this understanding to ultimately reduce your own suffering.

A common misunderstanding of forgiveness is that it is associated with reconciliation. For instance, you are estranged from your parent due to a history of child abuse and neglect. Forgiving them does not necessarily mean you need to rebuild a relationship or even be in contact with them. It can be done by yourself.

What Are the Three Aspects of Forgiveness?

There are 3 aspects of forgiveness: 

Forgiving Another Person(s)

This aspect of forgiveness is the most commonly talked about. It involves interpersonal forgiveness between two or more people.

Some examples of the issue include:

  • Betrayal of trust
  • Words of insensitivity
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Physical altercations

Factors that influence the likelihood of forgiveness include the value and type of the relationship, the probability of the harm occurring again, and the severity of the offense.

Forgiving Oneself

Forgiving yourself for your own wrongdoing may require the most effort since you might feel sadness regarding something you said, did, or didn't do.

Forgiving yourself for your own wrongdoing requires the most effort.

Not forgiving yourself can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and self-defeat and detrimental health outcomes such as depression and suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Forgiving the Situation or Circumstance

This aspect of forgiveness involves events that are not within the control of the person. Some examples include a pandemic, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, the death of a loved one, and receiving a diagnosis for a life-threatening condition.

These situations make people angry; they may blame God, and feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless. If a person is unable to forgive, they may develop a negative view of the world.

Ways Forgiveness Affects Mental Health 

There are several ways that forgiveness positively impacts our mental health. 

Improves Mental Health Outcomes

Forgiveness can help reduce depression, anxiety, and major psychiatric disorders.

A longitudinal study on female nurses looked at the forgiveness of others and health and well-being in mid-life. Results showed that forgiveness was significantly associated with better psychosocial well-being outcomes such as positive affect and social integration and decreased psychological distress outcomes such as depressive symptoms. It concluded that forgiveness may have population mental health implications in promoting psychosocial well-being.

Self-compassion may be a factor that explains this effect. A study looked at the effect of self-compassion on the relationship between a lack of forgiveness and depressive symptoms. It included 311 participants who completed a self-report questionnaire that assessed their forgiveness, self-compassion, and depressive symptom levels.

Results showed that self-compassion moderated the relationship between lack of forgiveness and depression. The researchers explained that self-compassion may help an individual feel positive emotions and view their painful feelings with understanding, kindness, and a sense of shared humanity which may allow them to forgive more easily.

Lowers Chronic Stress

Ruminating over what someone did or how things turned out can make us chronically stressed. Forgiveness can help create peace in our lives and heal emotional wounds.

A study examined the relationship between forgiveness, stress, and changes in mental and physical health. Using a large, community-based sample of 332 participants, the researchers assessed how their levels of forgiveness, stress, and health fluctuate and interrelate over the course of 5 weeks.

The results showed that increased forgiveness was significantly associated with decreases in stress and mental health symptoms. The researchers suggest there may be a reciprocal effect between stress and forgiveness.

For instance, forgiveness may be a coping mechanism used to relieve the perception of stress that is causing mental health symptoms. On the other hand, improved mental health is associated with decreased stress which increases forgiveness.

Prevents Toxic Anger 

Forgiveness can help us let go of resentment, calm our minds, create peace with ourselves, feel less on edge, and improve our energy levels.

Feeling angry occasionally is completely normal and healthy. However, constantly feeling angry because you are dwelling on a past injustice can become toxic to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Forgiveness can help us let go of resentment, calm our minds, create peace with ourselves, feel less on edge, and improve our energy levels.

Teaching forgiveness to younger populations may help create a less angry future. A meta-analysis reviewed 20 studies from 10 countries across North America, Asia, and Europe that looked at the role of forgiveness in healthy relationships and youth outcomes. It showed that teaching forgiveness education interventions to children and adolescents had a positive effect on forgiveness and anger.

This effect was evident regardless of whether the school was located in an economically disadvantaged or advantaged area. The researchers suggested that teaching the process of forgiveness can help reduce aggressive behaviors and improve social competence among children.

Rebuilds Self-Esteem

Lastly, forgiveness can have an impact on your self-esteem. Forgiving someone who hurt you by offering empathy and compassion can transform the way you see yourself.

What to Do If You Are Struggling to Forgive

It can be difficult to forgive especially if it is something that deeply hurt you. However, there are ways to help you reap the mental health benefits of forgiveness.

Tips for Forgiveness

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Practice empathy: Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and go through their thoughts and feelings. This can help you understand why they behaved the way they did or said what they said.
  • Have self-compassion: When we have been wronged, we sometimes blame ourselves for being the victim. However, when you treat yourself with compassion, it is easier to forgive yourself. What happened is not a reflection of self-worth.
  • Remind yourself of the benefits: Sometimes we forget that forgiveness rewards the forgiver, not the forgiven. 
  • Talk to someone: Sharing your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend or family member can offer a different perspective on the matter. 
  • Write a letter: Putting those feelings into words by writing them down can help you release emotions and give clarity on what happened.

Forgiveness isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires time, effort, and self-work to consciously let go of a painful experience. Talking to a therapist can help you learn to forgive, manage feelings, improve your relationships, and build a healthier and happier mindset.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lijo KJ. Forgiveness: Definitions, Perspectives, Contexts and Correlates. J Psychol Psychother 2018:8(3) 342.

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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.