What happens to your body when you hold grudges?

Holding onto grudges and resentment can have many negative effects on your physical and mental health. When you are unable to let go of hurt or anger, it activates the body’s stress response, keeping you in a constant state of “fight or flight.” This can lead to increased inflammation, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system over time. Learning to forgive others and yourself is an important step to improve overall wellbeing.

What is a grudge?

A grudge is an ongoing feeling of resentment or anger towards someone over a real or perceived offense. Grudges are held onto even after the incident that caused them is over. People may hold grudges over minor slights or major traumas. Some common causes of grudges include:

  • Being betrayed or hurt by a friend or partner
  • Being bullied, teased, or publicly embarrassed
  • Being unfairly criticized or judged
  • Feeling overlooked for a promotion at work
  • Receiving unfair treatment or discrimination

While it’s natural to feel hurt or angry when wronged, holding onto these feelings long-term takes up mental and emotional energy. This prevents you from moving forward and can negatively impact your physical health.

How grudges impact your brain and body

When you hold a grudge, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones flood your body. Your breathing and heart rate increase. Blood pressure rises and muscles tense up. This reaction is useful for responding to immediate physical threats, but chronic activation leads to strain on the body and mind.

Research shows that chronic stress and grudge-holding changes both the structure and function of the brain. Areas involved in fear, anxiety, and threat detection become overdeveloped. The hippocampus, which regulates emotions and memory, shrinks. This impairs your ability to regulate stress and process information.

Holding a grudge for a long time also weakens your immune system. High levels of adrenaline and cortisol suppress immune function and inflammation. This makes you more susceptible to infections, colds, and chronic diseases. Blood pressure remains elevated, increasing risk for heart attack and stroke.

Increased inflammation

When the body is under constant stress, levels of inflammatory proteins like C-reactive protein (CRP) and cytokines rise. These proteins cause widespread inflammation, damaging tissues and organs. Inflammation is at the root of many diseases, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Digestive disorders

Chronically high levels of CRP from holding grudges and resentment have been linked to arterial plaque buildup and increased risk of heart attack. Inflammatory cytokines also worsen insulin resistance, contributing to high blood sugar and diabetes.

High blood pressure

The hormones released when holding grudges constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure. Over time, this damages artery walls and makes the vessels harder. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease, kidney failure, stroke, and eye problems.

Weakened immune system

Stress hormones released when holding grudges impair the immune system. This makes you more likely to get frequent colds and infections. It also takes you longer to recover. Cortisol causes immune cells to be less responsive. Adrenaline redirects resources away from the lymph nodes, spleen, and other immune organs. Over time, holding grudges weakens your body’s ability to fight off pathogens and heal.

Mental health issues

Chronic stress from holding onto grudges is strongly linked to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The overwhelm of emotions and flood of stress chemicals in the brain leads to out-of-balance mood and thought processes. Releasing grudges through forgiveness exercises can improve mental health.

Physical effects of holding grudges

Some common physical symptoms caused by the stress of holding grudges include:

Symptom Cause
Headaches Muscle tension and constricted blood vessels
Insomnia Overactive hormones and inability to relax
Digestive issues Disruption of the gut-brain axis
Fatigue Adrenal exhaustion and cellular damage
Aches and pains Chronic inflammation
Frequent sickness Weakened immune responses

These symptoms can persist as long as you continue to hold onto resentment. They may be subtle at first but typically grow worse over time without intervention.

How grudges impact relationships

Holding grudges not only harms your health, but also damages your connections with others. Here’s how carrying resentments can hurt relationships:

  • Less trust – If you hold grudges, you are less likely to build deeper bonds and trust. You keep others at arm’s length.
  • Cynicism – Constant grudge-holding makes you more distrusting and cynical towards other people’s intentions.
  • Isolation – Resentment often causes you to distance yourself from others to avoid conflict.
  • Hostility – Grudges frequently lead to expressions of hostility like gossip, eye-rolling, criticism, and confrontation.
  • Projection – You may project grudges towards someone onto innocent parties, straining more relationships.

Letting go of past hurts allows you to rebuild connections and find inner peace. Forgiveness is just as important for your relationships as your health.

Health benefits of forgiveness and letting go

Forgiveness is the practice of making peace with hurts from your past and releasing negative emotions like resentment. Research confirms that cultivating forgiveness through practices like meditation, prayer, and journaling provides profound benefits:

  • Lower stress – Forgiveness calms the fight-or-flight response, lowering cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Less inflammation – Letting go of grudges decreses inflammatory proteins linked to chronic disease.
  • Stable blood pressure – Releasing resentments regulates blood pressure levels.
  • Stronger immunity – Forgiveness allows the immune system to return to optimal function.
  • Improved mental health – Forgoing grudge-holding relieves anxiety, depression, and other mental illness.
  • Deeper connections – Healthy relationships are built when old grudges are resolved.

Forgiveness allows you to finally process hurtful events and move forward with more inner peace, confidence, and vitality. It’s an act of self-love that improves health from the inside-out.

Lower stress response

Forgiveness techniques help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” response. Breathing rate and heart rate slow down. Muscles relax. Blood circulation improves. This reverses the biophysical strain from grudge-holding. Cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones are reduced to healthy levels.

Reduced inflammation

Letting go of long-held grudges decreases levels of inflammatory proteins like C-reactive protein (CRP). Lower systemic inflammation reduces plaque buildup in arteries, risk of heart attack, arthritis pain, and more. This also nurtures a healthy gut microbiome.

Healthy blood pressure

When painful memories are processed and released through forgiveness, blood pressure decreases to normal range. This reduces stress on artery walls and optimizes flow throughout the body. Stable blood pressure promotes cardiovascular health and proper organ function.

Boosted immunity

Processing grudges through forgiveness practices enhances immune function in several ways. First, lowered stress hormone levels allow white blood cells and other immune agents to circulate freely. Immune organs like the lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow work more efficiently without excess adrenaline and cortisol. Cells damaged by chronic inflammation also have an opportunity to heal.

Improved mental wellbeing

Letting go of grudges through intentional forgiveness work rewires the brain’s emotional processing centers. This increases resilience, lowers anxiety and depression, and alleviates PTSD. Constructive thinking and mindfulness around resentments help regulate mood and prevent destructive thought patterns from taking over.

Tips for letting go of grudges

It takes time and patience to release painful grudges. Here are some effective tips:

1. Re-frame your narrative

Look at the situation through the lens of compassion and empathy. Understand the context around why it happened. Recognize your part in the conflict. See the person’s humanity.

2. Release the anger

Express righteous anger in a constructive way through exercise, art, or writing. Then consciously let it go, rather than clinging to resentment.

3. Forgive yourself

Self-forgiveness for any part you played dissolves guilt and self-blame. It allows you to move forward.

4. Set boundaries

You can forgive someone without allowing continued mistreatment. Set clear boundaries so the harm is not repeated.

5. Try meditation

Mindfulness practices help center your emotions. Visualize negative feelings dissolving as you breathe deeply.

6. Write a letter

Writing down your full experience and emotions can help process the hurt. You don’t have to send it.

7. Practice gratitude

Focus on the blessings you have to crowd out negative obsessive thoughts.

8. Release it ritualistically

Burning letters, throwing rocks, and other rituals provide tangible release.

9. Consider counseling

For long-term grudges, a therapist can help you work through layers of pain and trauma.

10. Send forgiveness forward

Once you release a grudge, practice forgiveness with others in your life.

When to seek help

If you have tried forgiveness practices but still cannot move past a grudge, it may be time to seek professional help. Signs you need counseling include:

  • Obsessive thoughts about the grudge
  • Ongoing depression or anxiety
  • Feelings of self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • High blood pressure and inflammation
  • Damaged relationships

A psychologist can help you resolve layers of resentment and trauma through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR, and inner child work. Faith leaders, life coaches, and support groups also facilitate the forgiveness process.

When grudges serve a purpose

Are there times when holding some resentment may serve a purpose? In cases of severe betrayal, trauma, or abuse, immediately forgiving can feel unhealthy or even dangerous. Lingering feelings of self-protection and mistrust towards a perpetrator may be justified.

Allow yourself to feel a full range of emotions in response to deep wounds. Honor your process. Set boundaries to prevent further harm. You can eventually forgive even the greatest hurts once you feel safe and have built resilience. This restores power and promotes healing.

Seek support on the path

Releasing long-held grudges takes courage, but you don’t have to do it alone. Having the support of others who have walked this path can help. Some options include:

  • One-on-one therapy
  • 12-step programs
  • Church small groups
  • Online forums
  • Family members
  • Trusted friends

Find people who will listen with compassion, look for root causes, and hold you accountable. Having even one person cheering you on makes forgiveness more achievable.

Forgiveness is a process

Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. It is an ongoing practice. You may need to forgive some hurts multiple times as hidden emotions surface. With deep traumas, the layers of pain and mistrust can be complex.

Honor the time it takes to fully work through and release a grudge. Small progress is still meaningful. Over time, intentional practices will shift your perspective and bring release. You may find the journey to forgiveness ultimately frees you more than holding a grudge ever could.

Cultivating a forgiveness practice

Here are some key tips for cultivating an ongoing forgiveness practice:

  • Set aside regular quiet time for reflection.
  • Keep a feelings journal to get emotions out.
  • Try meditating on areas you feel “stuck.”
  • Pray blessings over people who have hurt you.
  • Repeat positive affirmations about letting go.
  • Do an act of service for someone in need.
  • Focus on lessons learned and inner strengths gained.

Make forgiveness part of your daily routine, even if it’s just 5 minutes. Over time, you will naturally release resentment and feel lighter.

Look for the roots

Explore the roots of grudges you carry. Do they connect to childhood experiences of rejection, criticism, or trauma? Unpacking these early origins helps you understand why certain pains linger.

Painful childhood memories get trigged by adult experiences. Healing your inner child’s past hurts will help prevent taking on new grudges. Therapy, inner child work, and support groups can facilitate this process.

Clarify your intentions

Set clear intentions when doing focused forgiveness practices. Are you visualizing release for your own peace or to reconcile a relationship? Do you need to establish boundaries? Get clear on motivations before diving in.

Keep expectations flexible

Instead of demanding certain outcomes, keep expectations open and flexible. Forgiveness work unfolds unpredictably. You may suddenly gain insights about your grudges. Old pains can get triggered before being released. Trust your intuition if you need to pause and process something before moving forward.

Monitor physical signs

Pay attention to your body during forgiveness practices. Notice areas of muscle tension. Check your breathing. Feel your heart rate. Scan for feelings of relaxation or agitation. Your body provides valuable feedback on releasing or holding on to grudges.

Release it in layers

Like peeling an onion, go through grudges layer by layer. As you slowly work through each emotional layer – anger, hurt, shame – the true roots will eventually be revealed.


Holding onto grudges does profound harm to your physical and mental health. By practicing ongoing forgiveness, you free yourself from past hurts and reclaim your power. Releasing grudges leads to decreased stress, lower blood pressure, fewer inflammatory proteins, improved immunity, healthier relationships, and inner peace. While challenging at times, the journey of forgiveness yields invaluable rewards.

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