MIND AND BODY Forgive for your health

LMA GARCIA-SMITH AT-tended a meditative retreat four years ago that changed her life.
During the seven-day silent retreat, she experienced heart palpitations and tightness in her throat, jaw and chest. Her hands were cold and clammy. Inside, an unsettling feeling gnawed away at her, but she didn't know why.
"I was having tremendous difficulty dealing with those feelings on that particular day," the Liberty Township resident recalls. "That night, the talk that was given was on forgiveness, and it struck me. It was what I needed."
She needed to forgive herself, she said.
"And that opened up a tremendous sense of healing in me, and that was four years ago. That night I had an experience of forgiveness in myself, and from then on, I found I could extend forgiveness to anyone. I was on a roll."
Now, Garcia-Smith's relaxed demeanor and calm, easy smile reflect the inner healing she received from her forgiveness experience.
"It was like a heavy weight was lifted off me," the 42-year-old said. "My body felt lighter. My throat opened. It's very liberating and empowering and uplifting."
A medical concern
Forgiveness, typically a religious topic, has become a medical concern as studies link forgiveness to improvements in mental and physical well-being. What originally was thought only to cause heartache now is suspected to contribute to heart problems and other ailments.
For example, studies at Hope College in Michigan reveal that blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension increase when test subjects are asked to remember past injustices, according to a 1999 CNN.com report.
In addition, the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has just completed the first study to show a cause-and-effect relationship between health and forgiveness.
Cardiac patients in their study showed significant improvements in heart functioning after a 12-week forgiveness program, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
And just last month, Harvard Medical School's annual Spirituality and Healing in Medicine program was themed, "The Importance of Forgiveness."
So why the hype about health and forgiveness?
Chain reaction
Failure to forgive can be the beginning of a chain reaction resulting in depression, heart disease and other physical and mental ailments, said Nancy L. Kiracofe, psychologist for Total Care Psychological and Counseling Services Inc. in Boardman.
Lack of forgiveness is often anger, and anger stimulates chemical reactions in the body that negatively affect the heart and weaken the immune system, making the body susceptible to disease or infection, she said.
In addition, anger induces stress, and dwelling on past slights makes stress levels rise, Kiracofe said. Some studies indicate the effects of stress on the body may lead to heart disease, autoimmune deficiencies, cancer and other health problems, she said.
Between 60 percent and 90 percent of physicians' business is stress-related, said Herbert Benson, president of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute, in the Christian Science Monitor.
"Hatred is a banquet until you recognize you are the main course," Benson said.
Forgiveness may be the antidote.
Forgiveness reduces anger and stress, Kiracofe said. Those who stop the feeding frenzy of hatred by learning to forgive experience reduced tension, tightness of muscles, instability and apprehension. Bodily health goes hand-in-hand with spiritual and mental health, research indicates.
But the health benefits of forgiveness may be hard to gauge because it's not standard for everybody, said Asheesh Pai-Dhungat, medical director of St. Joseph Family Medical Center-Howland. Some people may need to forgive their friend for an insult; others may need to forgive the person who killed a loved one.
But one thing he has seen in his practice: Faith makes many patients feel better, he said. Faith may be a component of forgiveness.
"It's more of a spiritual question in the end," Pai-Dhungat said. "You feel better -- whether there's actually a physical change in your body that makes you healthier has not been established at this time. Maybe it will be in the future."
Examining the health benefits of forgiveness is a topic worth exploring, he said.
"It's a powerful tool," Pai-Dhungat said. "When you give forgiveness, it's a sort of self-realization. It's more of a spiritual thing. You're basically finding peace with yourself. Once you do that, you'll have less stress automatically."
And Garcia-Smith's testimony supports those findings.
"Forgiveness is a process," Garcia-Smith said. "Eventually there is a letting go of that which is causing pain, and you're liberated. You're released from tension, anxiety, anger and resentment."
Sounds easy? Kiracofe warns it takes time and effort.
"The concept can be simple," Kiracofe said. "But actually doing it can be very difficult -- especially if the injury was grievous."
A barrier to healing
Willingness to forgive may be the biggest barrier to the healing process, said the Rev. Condie E. Watters, a Youngstown resident who is an ordained American Baptist minister and licensed clinical counselor.
"Forgiveness is essential to healing," Watters said. "People that tend to be healthy are also people who are able to let go of things and forgive. They go together -- the body and the mind and the soul."
Garcia-Smith, a physician and counselor, hopes to help people reunite mind, body and soul and impart her healing experience to others.
She's taking a sabbatical to complete training for a stress-reduction and healing program, which she hopes to offer in the area late next year.
The eight-week program is designed to bring wholeness and restoration to anyone from the stressed to the chronically ill.
She expects the issue of forgiveness will play a part in the mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which combines meditation and group discussions.
Listen to your body
The meditations taught during the course will help bring people in touch with their bodies, Garcia-Smith said. Once people start listening to their bodies, they can begin addressing issues they may have previously ignored, she said.
"There are physical manifestations that your body is talking to you: 'Now you listen to me. You've been putting this away for too long,'" Garcia-Smith said. "When we trust our bodies' wisdom, the opportunity opens."
She said that when she now experiences physical symptoms like those she endured during the seven-day retreat, she knows she needs to offer someone forgiveness again.
"Your hands are cold and sweaty," Garcia-Smith said. "You feel agitated. Your mind is restless. You feel it from head to toe. You ask yourself, what is this?"
If you listen, she said, you might be doing your health a favor.

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