This is what holding a grudge does to your body

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

We’ve all nursed a grudge at some point. But what does holding one do to our bodies? 

Tess* considers herself a pretty laid-back person. The 28-year-old production executive says she tends not to stew on others’ ill-chosen comments or stress out over perceived slights. But, she admits, there has been one major exception to her “life’s too short” philosophy. After she was overlooked for a leadership position at work, the successful candidate, Meg* – a new hire and now also her new boss – started to take credit for her work, and Tess couldn’t help but seethe.

“I never thought I’d be the grudge-holding type at all,” she tells Stylist. “But it just made me so angry, especially at a time when I was feeling so undervalued at work. It didn’t help that [we worked] in quite a social industry, so she was always there for after-work drinks and I had to play nice when I was actually fuming. It ended up draining so much of my energy.”

Eventually, Tess moved on to another job, but the bad vibes linger. “I still see her when I meet up with old work friends, and I can almost feel it physically, that annoyance,” she explains. “My jaw tenses up; I can almost feel the blood pumping.” 

Tess’s experience will likely resonate with anyone who has secretly nursed a long-term grievance: whether it’s a lump in our throats when we recall a hurtful memory, a pounding heart or a tightness around the forehead, a grudge can make its presence felt through all sorts of not-so-pleasant sensations. 

Last year, a Trustpilot poll found that the average UK adult is currently holding six grudges, with 12% of participants maintaining one for 20 years or more. And yet, for the most part, these are often one-sided feuds we don’t like to share with others (because, let’s face it, having your own personal burn book feels a little adolescent, a bit… Mean Girls).That’s precisely what drew behavioural scientist Elizabeth van Monsjou to the subject. “The topic of holding grudges was so interesting to me because so many people do it, but many don’t want to admit to it because they think it reflects poorly on them,” she says.

In her research, van Monsjou defines a grudge as “ongoing feelings or hurt and anger that can dissipate over time but are easily triggered, to the point where it can feel like the transgression has happened all over again”. Unlike, say, a more general dislike or antipathy, a grudge is “rooted in an inciting incident (or series of incidents) where the person who is holding a grudge feels like the person they’re holding a grudge against has done something wrong to them”, she explains. It’s the personally relevant wrongdoing in Tess’s case – specifically, her boss taking credit for her work – that’s important.

These ill feelings can be magnified even further, van Monsjou adds, when grudges occur in close interpersonal relationships: “Where trust is a key component [and] when trust gets breached and isn’t repaired, that’s a big part of where grudges come from.” It’s no wonder, then, that grudges are often rooted in family dysfunction or friendships gone sour. Writer and model Anya*,from the East Midlands, recalls a ‘frenemies’ situation that calcified into a grudge. “I think she found me a threat, and perhaps I found her a threat, actually,” she says. “I always did what she wanted to try to make her happy, in a sense, but I never really felt like I got the same back. It was like a competition I was having in my head with her.”

Scrolling through social media, Anya would wonder where her frenemy was and look her up on Instagram and compare herself to her. This rumination – returning again and again to the pattern of negative thoughts that make up a grudge – is one reason why grudge-holding can be so damaging. We play out our resentments repeatedly, rehearsing our hurt, picking at a scab that’s unlikely to heal. 

It’s a cyclical process, van Monsjou explains, starting when the grudge-holder feels invalidated by the other person’s wrongdoing. “They then seek validation, and if it’s not found in the form of apologies or acknowledgement… this can lead to sustained negative thoughts and emotions and an accompanying sense of powerlessness.” Rumination keeps the feeling alive: “The grudge is still there, just not as much as a focal point,” she adds. It might eventually become latent or something that’s ‘just there’ in the back of their minds, but not necessarily active. Crucially, though, it is still something that “can be easily triggered and reignite all the negative thoughts and emotions and levels of intensity that can mirror what was felt when the wrongdoing first occurred”.

Holding on to resentment is a protective mechanism, a coping strategy. If we carry on stewing over another person’s wrongs, we might think we’re less likely to fall victim to similar behaviour in the future. But things rarely work out so simply: we often end up feeling stuck, unable to move forward. In her research, van Monsjou says: “The people I spoke with talked about [how] the grudges they were holding affected how they saw other people in general, beyond just the person who hurt them. Interpersonal relationships are key to our wellbeing, and if the people who are holding grudges find it difficult to open up and trust others, this can impact the quality of their relationships and thus quality of life.”

Hanging onto a grudge, then, can eat away at both your mental and physical health. A 2019 study found that people who were more forgiving were more likely to sleep better, for longer and more likely to enjoy all the health benefits that come with being well rested. An earlier piece of research, published in 2008, came to the conclusion that “individuals high in hostility” (aka the grudge holders of the world) had the highest blood pressure out of all participants when talking about a negative experience.

Reliving the source of your resentment triggers your body’s fight-or-flight mode, so when you go over your grudge in your head, your body reacts in a way that’s similar to how it deals with danger. Your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, spike and levels of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ linked to social bonding, decrease. When this process is repeated over and over, it’s thought to contribute to our ‘allostatic load’. Think of this as a form of physiological wear and tear caused by stress responses. Coined by scientists Bruce McEwen and Eliot Stellar back in 1993, it’s a term that describes the impact of fluctuating regulatory mechanisms (like fight-or-flight) over time. An increased allostatic load has been associated with a plethora of health risks, including poor cardiovascular health and a weakened immune system. 

Forgiveness, meanwhile, has been associated with a reduced allostatic load: a 2012 study even found that conciliatory gestures towards the person who ‘wronged’ us can help reduce the raised cortisol levels associated with conflict. It’s in our own interests, then, to let go of hurt – not just for our peace of mind but for our overall wellbeing.

Of course, that’s not always easy to do. Ella*, a 26-year-old writer, developed a grudge against the person who asked her to leave a volunteering stint for reasons she didn’t think were fair. Though she’s not quite at the forgiveness stage yet, she has found ways to deal with the negative emotions without getting too hung up on the hurt. “Journaling helped me process my thoughts and feelings,” she explains. “Meditation helped me with letting go, cutting cords and understanding that holding onto it doesn’t serve me any purpose.”

Looking at conflict from another point of view could also help us move on. “Holding a grudge is very self-centred in the sense of people thinking about what was done to them, how they were hurt, how they feel,” van Monsjou says. “Although hard to do when in a state of emotional arousal, I think stepping back and trying to think about what might have led to the wrongdoing from the other person’s perspective can help people… appreciate contextual reasons.”

Empathy certainly played an important part in helping Ella move on. “After speaking to friends I realised that the person’s reaction was stimulated by deep insecurity, unresolved feelings and compromised coping mechanisms,” she says. “Knowing and understanding that helps the whole forgiveness process. Right now, I’m focusing on myself and letting time do its thing.”

Holding on to ill feelings, it seems, is more likely to hurt you than the target of your ire, so maybe press pause on Taylor Swift’s Vigilante Shit, and take a deep breath… 

* Names have been changed

Images: Getty

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