The Healing Power of Storytelling

Medicine for Body and Soul

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.” — Isak Dinesen

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”  Ursula K. LeGuin

Storytelling is an ancient tradition dating back long before recorded history. Though our methods have changed over time, our desire to listen and tell stories has not. Storytelling began as an oral tradition, helping us to remember and teach our history in ways that preserved both the emotions and the facts and gave us a way to pass on wisdom and experience. 

We are moved to share our stories and to listen to the stories of others for many reasons -- to entertain, to teach, to help us feel less alone in the world, to convince others of our point of view, or simply because storytelling allows us to connect in an intimate way with other human beings. 

Stories can inspire us to act, move us to tears, or allow us to deeply empathize with another person. It is no wonder then that stories can have the power to heal us when we are suffering. Research has shown that in the physically ill, stories stimulate the immune system and actually help speed recovery.  

In the book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes that, “A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.” Those that are seriously ill do travel on a journey and many return with stories to share. Those stories can be healing both for the person who has been ill as well as for those that choose to listen. They are stories of triumph, stories of acceptance or stories of struggles that are unresolved. 

One modern day digital resource for sharing these stories, available for people who are ill and their circle of family, friends and anyone else they choose, is the Caring Bridge (www.caringbridge.com). The caring bridge allows people to share the status of their health, and their feelings about what they are experiencing. In turn, their family and friends may share their support, provide inspirational thoughts and encouragement or ask questions. 

For people who are experiencing emotional suffering, sharing stories can encourage optimism, the discovery of creative solutions, and flexibility in thinking. Whether it is in the process of speaking to a psychotherapist or in sharing with those closest to us, telling and listening to each others’ stories also helps us to see that we are not alone. 

In the Native American culture, traditional tribal stories are used as medicine for addressing mental health issues. Stories are used to teach and encourage reflection, and to help people as they work to resolve their feelings of depression or anxiety, low self-esteem, or address issues of self-harm. You can find these stories on the website: Wisdom of the Elders (wisdomoftheeldersorg).

In today’s digital world there are so many ways for people to share their stories. Whether it is a personal blog, Facebook or twitter, youtube or podcasts - there are many ways we can help each other face the challenges of modern life. Here are some additional examples of powerful storytelling that are readily available:

This American Life (www.thisamericanlife.org). This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.8 million listeners. It has won major broadcasting awards. There's a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme, mostly true stories of everyday people. 

StoryCorp (NPR’s Friday’s Morning Edition). StoryCorps records, shares, and preserves the stories of our lives. In the words of StoryCorp: ”We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters. At the same time, we will create an invaluable archive of American voices and wisdom for future generations.” (www.storycorps.org).

Post Secret (www.postsecret.com) is an ongoing community project, created by Frank Warren in which people mail their secrets anonymously on a homemade postcard. Select secrets are then posted on the PostSecret website. Postcards are said to be inspirational to those who read them, have healing powers for those who write them, give hope to people who identify with a stranger's secret, and create an anonymous community of acceptance.

Storytelling is at the heart of what makes us human and is woven into our very biology. Stories have the power to heal, motivate and inspire us. Ultimately, they reflect our shared humanity.

“In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.” Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ronda Bresnick Hauss is a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of the Quiet Waters Center for Trauma, Stress and Resilience, on Capitol Hill. She uses an integrative & holistic approach to psychotherapy – addressing the connection between the mind, body and spirit through the use of traditional talk therapy, hypnosis, meditation, visualization, and creative, non-verbal techniques.  She can be reached at: 202-544-5050 or at www.quietwaterscenter.com


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