Conflict doesn’t just weigh down the spirit; it can also lead to health issues, increasing the risk of depression, heart disease, and diabetes, among other conditions. Whether it’s a simple spat with your spouse or long-held resentment toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict can go deeper than you may realize. “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health. Swartz suggests the following steps to help you develop a more forgiving attitude.
Reflect and remember
That includes the events themselves, and also how you reacted, how you felt, and how the anger and hurt have affected you since.
Empathize with the other person
For instance, if your spouse grew up in an alcoholic family, then anger when you have too many glasses of wine might be understandable, Swartz says.
Simply forgiving someone because you think you have no other alternative or because you think your religion requires it may be enough to bring some healing. But one study found that people whose forgiveness came in part from understanding that no one is perfect were able to resume a normal relationship with the other person, even if that person never apologized. Those who forgave only in an effort to salvage the relationship wound up with a worse relationship.
Let go of expectations
An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from her. If you don’t expect either, you won’t be disappointed.
Decide to forgive
Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t think you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life whom you trust.
The act of forgiving includes forgiving yourself. For instance, if your spouse had an affair, recognize that the affair is not a reflection of your worth, Swartz says.
Give Your Brain a Boost
There’s a lot you can do to protect your brain health as you age, according to Johns Hopkins experts. Evidence points to daily heart-pumping exercise as the most important. Getting enough sleep, taking care of medical problems like diabetes and hypertension, and staying socially engaged also yield benefits.
The Benefits of Friends
Friends are more than a boon to your social life; they’re integral to your health, protecting you against everything from heart disease to the common cold. Friends may even help you live longer, owing to the psychological well-being these relationships offer. So how many friends are required to see those benefits? “There’s no magic number of social connections you need for better physical and emotional health,” says Johns Hopkins geriatric medicine expert Alicia Arbaje. “It’s all about whether you have people in your life who meet your need for emotional, spiritual, and other kinds of support.”
It’s quality over quantity. You have enough friendship if you connect frequently—in person, by phone, even online—so that you don’t feel isolated. If you’re feeling lonely, try volunteering, taking a class, joining a hobby group, celebrating ethnic or cultural heritage, or connecting with your faith community as a way to foster new friendships.
Drinking to Forget
Drinking alcohol to dull the painful memory of a traumatic experience may actually have the opposite effect: A new study involving mice shows that alcohol intensifies such memories. Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers put mice through a series of “fear training” exercises to model post-traumatic stress disorder, followed by stimulation to retrieve the memory of the scary situation. The next day, half the mice were given plain water, while the other half consumed water mixed with alcohol. Two hours later, all the mice received memory-stimulating cues. The mice given alcohol displayed fear more than 50 percent of the time. Mice that consumed water were afraid less than 40 percent.
What does this mean for humans? Researchers estimate that a majority of people with PTSD binge drink as a means of self-medication. “Binge drinking or other attempts to use alcohol to self-medicate could be sabotaging therapy efforts,” says Johns Hopkins neurologist Norman Haughey.