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"The Power of Forgiveness": The Health Benefits of Letting Go

The Power of Forgiveness is a collection of seven short stories that, taken together, reveal the limits, difficulties, healing qualities, and unforeseen effects an act of forgiveness can have in the lives of the people who give it. One of the stories focuses on Kathleen Lawler-Row, a professor of psychology who has conducted extensive research into the effects of forgiveness on the human body.

In a video, Dr. Lawler-Row discusses her experiments probing the connection between forgiveness and symptoms of physical stress, like blood pressure. "When I bring people into the laboratory," she says, "I ask them to tell me about a time when someone deeply upset you, hurt you, betrayed you, etc. And some people say, 'Well, where do you want me to start? I have a long list.' They could talk about lots of different people in that context. Other people sit and think and think and think, and they struggle to come up with something. And I think that's part of the forgiving personality—more-forgiving people are just a little less aware of being offended."

The video shifts to Dr. Lawler-Row's laboratory as she asks one of her patients to rate his current level of forgiveness toward an individual on a scale from one to ten.

"When a person walks into the laboratory," she continues through a voiceover, "we have a few minutes where they sit, and we try to get a resting level—and interestingly, highly forgiving people have lower blood pressure just walking around in the world every day. But when we bring them into the lab, we ask them about a time when someone betrayed them, and everybody's blood pressure increases when they talk about this emotional moment."

The scene shifts back to the lab as a female patient describes a situation where a man became increasingly pushy and violent in an effort to get her back to his apartment.

"But the amount of the initial increase is really not the critical factor," Dr. Lawler-Row continues. "The critical thing is how long that blood pressure remains elevated. And people who are talking about a time that they are still very unhappy about, and that they have not been able to resolve or forgive, their blood pressure stays elevated for a longer period of time."

Back in the lab, Dr. Lawler-Row shows the female patient how her blood pressure changed during the telling of her story. "Your blood pressure when we started out is very normal—121 over 83. But as you start talking about this event, it goes up to 156 over 87, then 164, and here it's 184 over 127. This is an event that really triggers a reaction in you."

The patient is very surprised—even exclaiming, "I don't like that guy very much, do I?"

"Many of the stories I have heard have been profoundly disturbing, and the person will never forget what has happened to them," Dr. Lawler-Row continues. "But I have seen instances of people completely coming to resolution about it, and they show the pattern of the forgiving person—their blood pressure increases, but it drops off as they talk about it, and they are very quickly back to normal.

"Where someone else may have a far more trivial incident, but if they're hanging on to it for dear life, you see the pattern of the maintenance of blood pressure and the slow recovery. So I don't think the severity of the experience determines the health effects. It's really how the person is able to incorporate this past experience into their lives."

Content: not rated

Elapsed time: DVD track 6; 00:27:45 – 00:30:40

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