What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way…a betrayal by a spouse, a behind-your-back criticism from a friend, hateful judgment from someone at church, a false accusation by a co-worker, unfair treatment by a boss or a parent. And the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive. We harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts. We nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.

When someone hurts us, it’s natural and normal to feel pain. God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response generated in our emotional centers, 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. Those in turn activate part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, among other things, 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 or whether or not someone really hurts us or we simply perceive that they did.

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 neuropathways. When we’re not focused on a task, our inner self-talk will often default to rehearsing the painful situation.
  • Diminished memory: when we remain stressed for longs periods of time (i.e., we refuse to forgive), 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. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It actually feels good to see bad things happen to those we don’t forgive. It’s the opposite of praying for your enemies which Jesus commanded us to do.

So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains.

So what can we do? Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you.

  1. First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it) we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
  2. Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. However, don’t let journaling become another way to rehearse and reinforce your pain. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
  3. Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It’s not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
  4. 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.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

What insights have you learned about forgiving others?

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  • Lynn Hare

    Charles, excellent post. I’m amazed at the power of journaling as I’ve moved forward with grace. Expressing the pain and allowing God to meet me there gives me the peace to let go and forgive.

  • Lizzie Halloran

    This article was great! I am writing a paper on forgiveness, and I wanted to know the true science behind it. I like how you added God’s grace. God is the true remedy for stress. I was just wondering, does your brain release chemicals when you forgive someone? Thank you!

    • Lizzie, that is a great question that I don’t have an answer to though 🙂

  • Mikayla Birnstiel

    Hi there! I first heard this article’s findings on the radio and I was stunned! I’ve been suffering with these act health concerns for the last seven years, I had no idea it was linked to unforgiveness until I heard this. Thank you so much for your findings!