Cardiovascular Benefits of Forgiveness in Women: A Psychophysiological Study

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The Ohio State University

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The perseverative cognition hypothesis posits that psychological stress (e.g., sustained mental representations of past events) contributes to somatic disease through prolonged activation of cardiovascular and other biomechanisms. In the current study, we examined the effects of forgiveness compared to unforgiveness states, the latter conceptualized as a form of perseveration, on cardiovascular function. Ruminating about a hurtful event has been associated with higher heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension compared to forgiving. Specific aims of the current study are to examine the impact of forgiveness on vagal function—indexed by heart rate variability (HRV)—using an electrocardiogram. Healthy female participants’ (N = 60) HR data was continuously measured during a 5-minute baseline period, a 5-minute negative emotion induction, and 5 minutes of a randomized recovery manipulation. During the negative emotion induction, participants were instructed to think about a transgressor with whom they were feeling frustrated. Participants were then randomized into one of three recovery conditions: forgiveness (imagine forgiving the transgressor), extended frustration (continue thinking about the transgressor), and distraction (read neutral, thorough laundry instructions). After controlling for baseline and task HRV, participants in the forgiveness phase had higher HRV than those in both the extended frustration and distraction phases. Results suggest that: a) forgiveness may influence somatic health through mechanisms of cardiac autonomic control, b) lower HRV during unforgiveness is analogous to perseverative states such as worry and rumination, and c) among women, forgiveness of a transgressor may be a beneficial coping strategy. Overall, the findings support the perseverative cognition hypothesis, and suggest a link between forgiveness and cardiovascular health.


2012 Denman Undergraduate Research Forum Winner: 3rd Place


psychophysiology, women's health, cardiovascular health, emotion regulation