Though I was born and raised on the shores of beautiful Lake Erie, I have lived in the South now for almost half of my life. In the South they have a saying — “bless your heart” — that means different things depending on the circumstances. For our purposes, we will focus on the positive side of this familiar phrase.
We all can be a blessing to the hearts of others, but in order to live a healthy life, we need to be aware of how we are taking care of our own heart as well.
There is a clear and documented connection between our emotional wellness and heart health. Research has shown the links between anxiety, depression, unforgiveness, anger — and heart disease.
“It’s my view and my personal clinical experience that anxiety disorders can play a major role in heart disease,” says Dr. Una McCann, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Dr. Una explains that when someone is anxious, their body reacts in ways that can put an extra strain on their heart. Anxiety may have an association with heart disorders and cardiac risk factors, including rapid heart rate (tachycardia), increased blood pressure and decreased heart rate variability — all of which lead to heart disease.
Many scientific studies show a direct connection between high levels of anger and heart disease. The Hopkins study of more than 1,300 male medical students found that those who were quick to anger were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack.
Anger releases harmful stress hormones, increases oxygen demand by the heart’s muscle cells and increases the stickiness of blood platelets, which can lead to blood clots.
Another emotion that leads to heart disease is depression. “Study after study has shown that people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely — not only of heart disease but from virtually all causes—than those who have a sense of connection, love, and community,” Dean Ornish, MD, tells WebMD.
“What these studies show us is that this is the important stuff,” Ornish says. “We are touchy, feely creatures, we’re creatures of community, and we ignore these things at our own peril.”
Another major risk factor for heart disease — as well as cancer, arthritis and other diseases — is unforgiveness.
According to Dr. Steven Standiford, chief of surgery at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, refusing to forgive makes people sick and keeps them that way. As a result, unforgiveness is now classified in medical books as a disease.
To counteract the negative effects, forgiveness therapy is now being used to help treat disease. “It’s important to treat emotional wounds or disorders because they really can hinder someone’s reactions to the treatments,” Standiford explained, “even someone’s willingness to pursue treatment.”
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins. Research shows that chronic anger triggers the fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. This leads to an increased risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes, and other debilitating conditions.
Studies have found that forgiveness acts like a shock absorber for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack, improving cholesterol levels, improving sleep, while at the same time reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression, and stress.
And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
According to a survey by the non-profit Fetzer Institute, 62 percent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives. “Forgiveness is a choice,” Swartz says. “You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to the person who wronged you.”
The Mayo Clinic recommends these steps to help you move from suffering to forgiveness:
- Recognize the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your life;
- Identify what needs healing and who needs to be forgiven and for what;
- Consider joining a support group or seeing a counselor;
- Acknowledge your emotions about the harm done to you and how they affect your behavior, and work to release them;
- Choose to forgive the person who’s offended you;
- Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life
As Christians, we know the Bible is clear about the need for forgiveness:
Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. (Colossians 3:13, NLT)
If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15, NLT)
You may have been hurt so deeply or betrayed in such a cruel way that you may think you are unable to forgive. If that is the case, I encourage you to pray this prayer:
God, I know you call us to forgive those who have hurt us, but I do not have the strength within me to forgive in this situation. By an act of my will, I choose to forgive, despite how I feel, and I ask you to give me the grace to extend that grace to the one who has hurt me.
Remember, forgiveness is given, but trust must be earned. Just because you have forgiven someone doesn’t mean that you have to immediately let him or her back into your life. Sometimes we must even disassociate from those who live in a toxic manner.
If you will pray this prayer with sincerity, God will give you the grace you need to live a life free of anxiety, depression, unforgiveness, and anger — and this lifestyle will truly “bless your heart.”
Dr. Craig von Buseck is Digital Editor of Inspiration.org.
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