The key to good health, experts now say, is about turning the flame down, not up, particularly when it comes to negative emotions such as anger, frustration and hurt feelings. Learning to let go of those feelings is just as important for good health as watching what you eat, exercising, getting enough sleep and wearing a seatbelt.
Holding on to negative emotions can cause stress
"When we hold on to negative emotions such as anger, frustration and resentment, it affects circulation, digestion, respiration, hormones and so on," says Mark Cummings, an expert in stress psychology with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Whether its cause is physical (e.g. injury) or emotional (e.g. someone cut you off in traffic), stress attacks the immune system in the same way, weakening the body's defense system and making you more vulnerable to health problems and disease.
Signs of unresolved anger in mind and body
How do you know you have unresolved anger or bitterness towards someone? You're constantly fantasizing about their downfall or dreaming about them. "I tell patients that if they're thinking about the incident twice a year, then it's really not an issue," says psychologist Catherine Gildiner. "If they're thinking about it several times a day, they need to do something about it."
Paying attention to what your body is trying to tell you will also clue you in. Anger can express itself in a clenched jaw, dry mouth, shallow breathing and a raised voice, for instance. Inside the body, your blood pressure is probably spiking, your heart pounding and your gut tightening. The brain releases the "fight or flight" chemicals which flood your body, constricting blood vessels and potentially leading to problems such as migraines, high blood pressure, and even cardiovascular disease.
Learning to let go of negative feelings is good stress management
At the very least, holding on to resentments means you're investing time and energy in the past, not the present. "It siphons off energy that you need in the present to get healthy," says Mark Cummings.
Here's what the experts recommend to start unpacking some of that health-threatening emotional baggage:
Six steps to letting go of anger and resentment
1. Stop blaming yourself. In our stressful world, many people tend to blame themselves when things go wrong.
"You will never be able to forgive anyone if you can't forgive yourself first," says Dr. Gildiner. "When you let go of feelings of self-blame, you will immediately find it easier to forgive others."
2. Try not to take it personally. Anger about slights or wrongdoings and an inability to forgive arises from deep-seated issues back in childhood, such as feeling that your mother always favoured your brother or sister. Now, when your close friends don't seat you at the head table at their wedding, unresolved feelings of inadequacy surface with a vengeance.
Instead of thinking to yourself, I'm not good enough and that's why they didn't seat me at the head table,' recognize that the reason probably has nothing to do with you, like the fact that they didn't have any room left at the head table. Not personalizing an event makes it much easier to let go of resentment.
3. Deal with your feelings. Unresolved anger or bitterness may make it difficult for you to focus on the rest of your life.
Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to dealing with them. You may then to decide to approach whoever's upset you and discuss how you feel. Or if you feel that's not an option, you may find that understanding why you feel the way you do is enough to let you move on.
4. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. When someone says or does something that hurts you, recognize that often it's because they feel jealous or frustrated themselves.
Maybe you got the promotion, for instance, and they didn't. See the sadness in their actions and use it to let go of your negative feelings.
5. Make peace with the past. Even if a person you feel anger toward is no longer alive, you still need to forgive and let go of those feelings.
There are different ways to do this. Some people find it helpful to write down all their hurt feelings and then to let them go by tearing up the list or burning it. By laying your resentments to rest you are less likely to be haunted by them.