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Health Benefits of a Sincere Apology

Saying you're sorry is potent medicine for the giver and receiver.
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WebMD Feature

We all know the feeling. You gossiped and the person found out. You helped yourself to something that wasn't yours (such as someone's spouse). You stole. You lied. You read your child's diary. It never sits quite right -- you toss, you turn in bed, you have that sinking feeling in your chest, you eat, you drink too much, you get headaches.

Carol Orsborn, PhD, a research associate at UCLA and author of 15 books including Nothing Left Unsaid: Words to Help You and Your Loved Ones Through the Hardest Times and The Silver Pearl: Our Generation's Journey to Wisdom, tells WebMD about a woman she met while writing the latter book.

Barbara, age 50, was going through a divorce and her brother was her mainstay, talking her through lonely nights on the phone. Then she met the man of her dreams and moved away. She got so swept up in her new life, she put her brother on the backburner. She missed his birthday.

That's when the sleepless nights began. She was embarrassed to even call. She knew he would be hurt -- but would he be angry? Eventually, she picked up the phone. Yes, he was hurt, but he said he understood. She started sleeping again -- and talking to her brother.

Orsborn surveyed 100 women in the baby boomer group for The Silver Pearl. "These were women who were role models with a positive attitude, whether or not they had any money," she says.

A key characteristic was their ability and willingness to clear up unfinished business, she notes.

Stages of Life Keyed to Level of Healing

"Stage one," Orsborn says, "is the good little girl stage. No matter what their age, women in this stage may apologize for everything, even things they don't need to. They need to please people."

Stage two is the rebellion period. Women, Orsborn says, can rebel against the pleasing phase and are not likely to apologize for anything! "They are mad about everything," she says.

The third stage is wisdom, she says. "When women get beyond following the rules and beyond reactivity, they take the best of both. This means they have an urge to reconcile legitimate shortcomings."

In terms of health, Orsborn says, "Women at stages one and two tend to have more stress-related disorders and anxiety."

On the flip side, a study done in 2002 by researchers from Hope College and Virginia Commonwealth University showed that heart rate, blood pressure, sweat levels, and facial tension decreased in victims of wrongs when they imagined receiving an apology.

In both cases, the people were carrying "the pain of the past," as Orsborn puts it, and then could lay it down and walk away from it.

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