Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study

Abstract

Background

Psychological stress is a well-known risk factor for poor health, and recent research has suggested that the emotion-focused coping process of forgiveness may help mitigate these effects. To date, however, no studies have examined how levels of forgiveness, stress, and health fluctuate and interrelate over time.

Purpose

We addressed this issue by examining how forgiveness, stress, and mental and physical health symptoms change and relate to one another over 5 weeks. We hypothesized that increases in state levels of forgiveness would be associated with decreases in perceptions of stress, which would in turn be related to decreases in mental and physical health symptoms. A reverse effects model was also tested.

Methods

We recruited a large, community-based sample of 332 young, middle-aged, and older adults (16–79 years old; M age = 27.9). Each week for 5 weeks, participants reported on their levels of state forgiveness, perceived stress, and mental and physical health symptoms.

Results

Levels of forgiveness, stress, and mental and physical health symptoms each showed significant change and individual variability in change over time. As hypothesized, increases in forgiveness were associated with decreases in stress, which were in turn related to decreases in mental (but not physical) health symptoms (i.e., forgiveness → stress → health). The reverse effects model (i.e., health → stress → forgiveness) provided a relatively poorer fit.

Conclusions

This study is the first to provide prospective, longitudinal evidence showing that greater forgiveness is associated with less stress and, in turn, better mental health. Strategies for cultivating forgiveness may thus have beneficial effects on stress and health.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a University of California, Davis Provost’s Fellowship to Grant S. Shields, and by National Institutes of Health grant K08 MH103443 and a Society in Science—Branco Weiss Fellowship to George M. Slavich.

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Correspondence to George M. Slavich PhD.

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Authors’ Statement of Conflict of Interest and Adherence to Ethical Standards

Authors Toussaint, Shields and Slavich declare that they have no conflicts of interest. All study procedures were carried out in accordance with the ethical standards of the University’s Institutional Review Board, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

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Toussaint, L.L., Shields, G.S. & Slavich, G.M. Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study. ann. behav. med. 50, 727–735 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6

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Keywords

  • Forgiveness
  • Stress
  • Coping
  • Individual differences
  • Trajectories
  • Symptoms
  • Risk
  • Mechanism
  • Development
  • Health
  • Disease