What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain
We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way, and the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive but harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts and we nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.
God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response, primarily mediated by two almond shaped clusters of brain cells called the amygdalae. When the amygdalae are activated, a series of bio-chemical processes begin: the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys release the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies and the brain releases neurotransmitters into the brain, activating part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system; our attention gets highly focused on survival, our digestive system stops, our pupils dilate, our saliva glands slow, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, and our muscles are readied for action. Our body prepares itself to fight, flee or freeze. This process can happen whether or not we are in real danger. Unforgiveness can keep our bodies and brains in this state of high alertness and leads to these unhealthy results:
Rumination: We nurse and rehearse the hurt, which reinforces our negative emotions and burns the event and pain even deeper into our neuro-pathways.
Diminished memory: When we remain stressed for longs periods of time, cortisol actually causes our brain to atrophy, especially our memory center called the hippocampus.
Amplified negative emotions: Prolonged stress also amplifies our amygdalae’s sensitivity making us even more susceptible to further hurt and pain.
Schadenfreude: This concept describes the secret pleasure we feel when we see those who have hurt us experience misfortune themselves; the opposite of praying for your enemies, which Jesus commanded us to do. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine.
So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender, but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains. Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you:
First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it), we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
Draw deeply from God’s grace. At the root of the Christian faith lies grace, receiving God’s grace and extending it to others who have hurt us.
The Apostle Paul reminded us in Colossians 3.13 to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us.
Charles Stone for Church Leaders
18 November 2015