Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
- Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
- At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
- Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
- At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
- After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
- Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
- Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse. Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
Forgiveness is full of paradoxes. Consider three examples of these paradoxes:
1) As one is kind to those who are not kind to the person, then the forgiver experiences emotional relief;
2) Rather than seeking justice as part of forgiveness, the person exercises the virtue of mercy and this can be part of the healing process between two people;
3) When emotionally hurting from the injustice the focus is not on the self, but on the other and this promotes healing in the forgiver.
Another paradox is that as forgiveness fosters humility, the lowliness of humility fosters the strength of courage. As one forgives, one begins to practice humility which means lowering oneself from a potential power position to see the self and the other as at least somewhat similar in these: We are both imperfect; we both have hurt others; we are both human and therefore each of us possesses inherent worth. The humility can help one stand firm in courage to persevere in the forgiveness process with all of its paradoxes. After all, if the forgiver sees the inherent worth in both, then there is motivation to acknowledge this worth and see the process of forgiveness through to the end, which requires courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving forward even in fear.
Humility and courage each can be misunderstood. There are two extremes to both humility and courage. The first extreme for humility is to have a very lowly—too lowly—view of the self so that people think they deserve to be humiliated, even constantly humiliated. The other extreme of humility is, in trying to see one’s own bounds or limitations, to distort these at too high a level. The quest for humility, in this second case of extremes, leads to a distortion toward one’s own greatness, one’s own specialness above others.
The first extreme of courage is too much fear that leads to a lack of action. The second extreme of courage is a reckless bravado, charging ahead without the ability to do so and therefore to endanger self and others.
Humility requires a middle-ground between self-deprecation and self-inflation to a more realistic view of one’s own (and others’) strengths and weaknesses.
Courage requires a middle-ground between being frozen in fear and being reckless.
As one forgives, the person needs to balance both humility and courage. Genuine humility (without the extremes discussed above) helps the forgiver to see the shared humanity with the forgiven. Genuine courage (without those extremes) helps the forgiver to persevere in the struggle to forgive and to bring justice as its own moral virtue into the process of reconciliation.
Humility, courage, and forgiveness are a team that, together, can lead to inner healing and the offer of reconciliation toward those who have behaved unjustly.
The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.
“Forgiveness therapy targets and reduces unhealthy anger.”
Psychological depression occurs in at least 25% of all primary care patients in the United States and yet only about one-third of these are diagnosed as depressed. Mental illness is not an isolated issue but is associated with such physical compromise as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer (American Psychological Association, 2017). It is estimated that over 14 million people in the United States suffer from major depressive disorder (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 2017).
The good news is that depression is a highly treatable disorder with medication and with such psychological approaches as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (recognizing and stopping maladaptive thinking and replacing this with more adaptive thoughts and behaviors), Mindfulness Therapy (being present to the symptoms and not letting troublesome thoughts drift to the past or future), and Behavioral Therapy (engaging in rewarding behaviors).
A new approach, Forgiveness Therapy, focuses on a sequence that is not a common practice in contemporary psychotherapies:
- Examine whether or not you have been treated unfairly, even cruelly, in the past. Recognize this as unjust.
- Realize that emotional pain is a natural next step when reacting to such unfair treatment by others. After all, you have a right to be treated with respect, even if this does not occur.
- If you do not find a solution to this emotional pain, eventually you may become angry at the situation and at the persisting pain.
- If you do not find a solution to the growing anger or the emotional pain, then you might develop what we call unhealthy anger, the kind that is so deep that it starts to affect sleep, energy levels, thoughts, and behaviors (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
- If the unhealthy anger persists, this can develop more deeply into symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The takeaway message from the above sequence is this: For some people, depression is not the only issue to be treated. Instead there are three other, central issues too often missed with traditional therapies: injustice(s) that happen but are not confronted; the emotional pain that ensues; and most importantly for Forgiveness Therapy, the unhealthy anger that fuels the depression in some people.
If you only focus on current medication or current thoughts or current symptoms, you may miss the actual cause of the depression, which could be a build-up of the unhealthy anger caused by emotional pain caused by injustice.
Forgiveness Therapy starts by examining the injustices in your life that may be compromising that life now. Some people are surprised to learn that they still carry the emotional wounds, for example, from being bullied on the school playground, or being belittled by a parent years ago, or not being given a chance in the workplace when just starting out. It is this kind of injustice that has to be uncovered and identified as hurtful in the present.
Next comes the challenge of admitting the depth of one’s anger. The norms of contemporary society, that good people do not get deeply angry, can get in the way of this identification, but it is vital to go more deeply than these norms to see if, in fact, the anger is deep, lingering, and harmful. When unresolved anger from the past mixes with contemporary challenges, then the anger can intensify, compromising one’s well-being and thus leading to depressive symptoms.
At this point, a person may be ready to try to forgive because of this insight: My unhealthy anger is destructive for me. To forgive is to start the process of being good to those who are not good to you. It starts with the insight that the other is more than what he or she did to me. We share a common humanity. We even might share a common woundedness in that the person wounded me out of his or her own woundedness. Such insights can lead to a softer heart toward the other, which reduces anger to manageable levels, which can lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms. The more that the unhealthy anger lessens, the more the depression can be reduced (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
Forgiveness Therapy is not a substitute for medication or for the implementation of other psychotherapies such as CBT. Forgiveness Therapy can come alongside these well-tested approaches and give you added strength to deal with the depression and to reduce it to manageable levels. Forgiveness Therapy is not for everyone. Some just do not want to consider the paradox of offering kindness toward the unkind. This form of therapy needs to be willingly chosen by the client. It is new but tested both scientifically and clinically, and it works.
Do you have injustices, even from your distant past, that are getting in the way of your happiness? If you start the process of forgiving those who have been cruel to you, perhaps the depression not only will be managed but reduced to a degree that may surprise you.
Posted in Psychology Today April 6, 2017
- American Psychological Association (2017, retrieved). Data on behavioral health in the United States http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/data-behavioral-health.aspx
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (2017, retrieved). Depression statistics.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
Forgiveness within psychology is relatively new, having emerged as a research focus in the later 1980’s (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). Over the next three decades, a host of studies have emerged within the mental health professions showing that Forgiveness Therapy is beneficial for the client, for the one who forgives (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade et al., 2014). We have to be careful with these findings primarily because a false conclusion could emerge: Forgiveness is only for, or primarily for, the one who forgives; it has little to do with the one forgiven. This, actually, does not seem to be the case. A reflection on what forgiveness accomplishes, its purpose or goal, suggests at least 8 purposes to forgiving.
What does it mean to forgive? Although there may be different behaviors across the wide variety of cultures to express forgiveness, in its universal essence, forgiveness can be defined as a moral virtue, centered on goodness, that occurs in the context of being treated unfairly by others. The one who then chooses to forgive deliberately tries to eliminate resentment and to offer goodness of some kind toward the offending person, whether this is kindness, respect, generosity, or even love.
The one who forgives does not automatically go back into a dangerous relationship. The forgiver can forgive and then not reconcile. The forgiver does not excuse the unfair behavior but offers goodness in the face of the unfairness. The forgiver should not think in “either/or” terms, either forgiving and abandoning a quest for justice, or seeking justice alone without forgiving. The two moral virtues of forgiveness and justice can and should be applied together.
1. to become emotionally healthier. Forgiving can reduce unhealthy anger.
2. to repair relationships as it helps me to see the other’s worth.
3. to grow in character because it can help me to become a better person.
6. to motivate me to contribute to a better world as anger does not dominate.
7. to help me to more consistently live out my own philosophy of life or faith tradition if that worldview honors forgiveness.
8. to exercise goodness as an end in and of itself regardless of how others react to my offer of forgiving.
To forgive is to exercise goodness even toward those who are not good to you. Forgiveness is perhaps the most heroic of all of the moral virtues (such as justice, patience, and kindness, for example). I say it is heroic because which other moral virtue concerns the offer of goodness, through one’s own pain, toward the one who caused that pain? Do you see this—the heroic nature of forgiving—as you extend it to others?
- Baskin, T.W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 79-90.
- Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.
- Wade, N.G., Hoyt, W.T., Kidwell, J.E.M., & Worthington, Jr., E.L. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82, 154-170.
Posted in Psychology Today Apr 16, 2018