Stories that Heal

Book On Grass

The age-old practice of telling stories became new again, when businesses discovered that storytelling could boost their bottom lines and increase their powers of persuasion.

But stories can do a lot more than increase sales.  They also can be key tools for personal growth. Stories can heal. We constantly tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives, and these internal narratives affect our wellbeing and shape our identities. There’s a whole field of research, called narrative psychology, which explores how stories affect our thoughts. In fact, psychologists now view life stories as one of the three fundamental layers of personality development.

The stories we tell ourselves are especially important in times of crises. How do we make sense of getting fired from a job or of our spouse suddenly demanding a divorce? Such negative experiences may make us question our purpose in life as well as what psychologists call our sense of unity, that is, whether we still feel like the same person after an enormous loss.

“The way that you tell your story about your life really matters for your mental health,” says Jonathan Adler, a psychology professor who’s done groundbreaking work on the relationship between narratives and well-being. Certain story characteristics can predict future psychological health, says Adler, who works at Olin College in suburban Boston.

People who tell stories where they have some sense of agency, that is, feeling some control in dealing with difficult situations, typically fare better than those who portray themselves as powerless victims. Similarly, people tend to be psychologically healthier, research shows, if they tell stories with redemptive themes, where their plots move from negative to positive or where they manage to find something positive in horrible experiences.

In one seminal study, called “Living Into the Story,’ Adler discovered that people began shifting their internal narratives before they made changes in their behavior. He studied people just starting therapy, asking them to write a story after each session describing their feelings about the meeting and to fill out a questionnaire that measured their psychological health. As therapy progressed, he found that the stories changed, too, with people feeling more control over their lives. They began to realize that they may not be able to control events, but they could control how to respond to them.

It’s not all that different from what Shakespeare expressed centuries ago, with Hamlet saying:  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Now, Adler helps oversee an innovative nonprofit, which is trying to harness the healing power of stories. The Health Story Collaborative, the brainchild of Dr. Annie Brewster, gives patients the chance to share stories of illness in various ways, including live storytelling events, where they speak to groups of invited guests. It also features a SharingClinic, housed inside a tiny medical museum near Massachusetts General Hospital, which is essentially an interactive kiosk filled with anonymous recordings from patients, doctors, and caregivers. People use the kiosk’s touch screen to choose what kinds of stories they’d like to hear, searching by diagnosis, story theme, or narrator’s perspective.

Brewster, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, launched the collaborative in 2013, after dealing with the healthcare system for more than a decade as both a doctor and patient. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001, Brewster kept her illness a secret for years. She felt ashamed and didn’t want people treating her differently. “This silence took a toll,” she wrote on the collaborative’s website. “Shame is poison. I was rejecting a part of myself.”

For years, she says, she yearned to hear stories about how patients managed to move on with their lives in positive ways, how “to recognize the positive aspects of illness, the perspective shifts and personal growth that are possible when one is forced to recognize the fallibility of the body.” Not interested in joining a support group, she decided instead to record patient stories, which says “transcend illness as a celebration of hope, human resiliency and dignity.”

Now, Brewster and Adler, the collaborative’s chief academic officer, are working to expand their healing session programs across the country. They hope to build community while making hospitals less scary and lonely.

Other programs try to use stories to heal different populations. The TMI Project, based in Kingston, NY, leads storytelling workshops and performs at colleges, prisons, and community centers, encouraging people to share details of stories they may feel too ashamed to discuss – the parts that feel like “too much information” but actually can release stigma.

Drug Story Theatre, meanwhile, helps teens recovering from drug and alcohol abuse create a play about their experiences and then perform it to student audiences. Not only do performers teach their peers important lessons, explaining how the adolescent brain is much more vulnerable to addiction, but they also wind up feeling valued and respected.

“Everyone wants the same thing,” says Dr. Joseph Shrand, the Massachusetts psychiatrist who created the program. “They want to feel valuable.”