Practicing Acceptance

In his new book, The Age-Proof Brain, Marc Milstein, Ph.D., makes a medical case for letting bygones be bygones.
Forgiveness keeps the brain resilient against stress. Photo: Yusuf Eser

If we can consciously create feelings of happiness and satisfaction, can we consciously let go of anger and resentment? Others may say or do things that intentionally or unintentionally hurt our feelings. We may ruminate on these negative thoughts and interactions, which releases cortisol. When our brain is chronically bathed in cortisol, this increases the stress response and can damage the brain. A resilient brain is protected against stress-induced changes to its structure and function. A practice called self-compassion and acceptance really works, and it’s being used in the real world. Here’s how to do it in three simple steps:

1. Think of a person (or a pet) who you love. Sit with that feeling for about five minutes.

2. Take that feeling of love for someone else and give it to yourself for about five minutes.

3. Take that feeling of love and send it out to people you are upset with. Even if you have every right to be upset with them, send this feeling for about five minutes.

You might be wondering why a practice called self-compassion includes Step 3. Why should you send good feelings to someone you’re upset with when you have every right to be angry at them? Well, have you ever heard the expression “Forgiveness is for you, not them”? That statement has real credence in brain science. A constant state of anger can damage the brain due to the chronic release of hormones such as cortisol. It is important to take a moment and not only forgive yourself, but also forgive others if you are holding onto anger.

Of the three steps, though, researchers found that Step 2 was the most likely to be skipped. Participants said they could cultivate a feeling of love and send it to someone who had hurt them or with whom they were angry, but when it came to giving themselves the feeling of love, the responses ranged from discomfort to disgust. We tend to focus on everything we do wrong and not what we are doing right; we need to be kinder to ourselves. Vitally, though, those who skipped Step 2 did not show as resilient a brain in the scans.

Excerpted with permission from The Age-Proof Brain; BenBella Books.