How Forgiveness Changes Your Brain

by Caroline Leaf

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13 NIV

Forgiveness is more than just a word or action. It is something that that affects us mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It helps us heal n ways we are only just beginning to understand.

This is due to the law of entanglement in quantum physics, which keeps everything in a relationship—toxic or otherwise—entangled, affecting each component. Forgiveness helps us sever the toxic hold someone who hurt us has over us. It helps us disconnect from the source of our pain and find true healing.

We cannot escape the fact that we are all entangled in each others lives. When we forgive, we are not just doing so for the sake of the person who has hurt us. We help heal ourselves too! In fact, some amazing things start happening in our mind, brain and body when we forgive. For example, we grow a part of our brain called the anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS), and the more we grow this area, the easier it will become to manage the pain of what happened to us. Forgiveness is a part of our healing journey.

If someone does something bad to us and we forgive them, we essentially transfer the “pain energy” from what happened to “recovery energy”. We have to take the sting out of the story—yes, it’s still emotional, but it’s managed emotion.

Of course, this is a lot easier said than done, and is something that we need to work on using self-regulation and mind management. We can’t just say “I forgive you” as if they are magic words—there needs to be intentionally and work behind what we say and do when someone hurts us. Forgiveness is a mental process, not a one off event.

Consider these 5 steps: 

1) Gather awareness of how you feel mentally and physically when you think about what happened to you. Are you frustrated? Angry? Fearful? Angry? Sick to your stomach?

2) Reflect on how you feel. Why do you think you feel this way? What is happening in your brain and body as you respond to your pain in this way? Why do you feel like you are struggling to move on from this or forgive this person?

3) Write down your reflections to help organize your thinking. 

4) Recheck: think about what your thoughts and feelings are trying to tell you. What does it say about how you view the situation? What is your antidote—how will you take the sting out of your story? How will you disconnect from the pain through forgiveness? Look for clues in your writing, then start to re-conceptualize the way you are thinking about what happened to you and who hurt you.

5) Do your active reach. This is a thought or action you need to practice daily to help you re-conceptualize what you thought about in the previous step – that is, practice seeing the pain differently to change the way it affects your wellbeing and practicing forgiving the person who harmed you. Some great ways to do this are: 

  • When you catch yourself rehearsing your trauma, speak the newly re-conceptualized though out loud, such as “I forgive x for x. I don’t know what they are going through, but I understand that they acted from a place of pain. I will no longer give what happened paper over me…”. This helps remove energy from the “wound”, redirecting your attention to focusing on your own healing by letting go of the sting of what happened. As you do this, it will change the energy patterns in your mind, making you more resilient and stronger!
  • Remind yourself that you get to write your own story. You cannot control the circumstances of life, but you can control your reaction to what happens to you. You have power over your own story, and you do not have to stay connected to the person who harmed you.
  • Speaking with friends or family to help you get perspective when you feel yourself teetering on the brink of toxic stress. Therapists or other mental health professionals are great too! Remember, asking for help takes courage! It is not “weak”. Asking for help or for someone to hear what we are going through is one of the most human things we can do, and it can be incredibly helpful.

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