How Storytelling Is Good for Your Mental Health

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Storytelling is typically described as telling or writing stories. These narratives are often told for entertainment and to engage listeners or readers. Storytelling, however, is also powerful in shaping your mental health.

We are storytellers when we share with a family member about a negative event that happened at the market. We also are storytellers when we describe the beginning of a romantic relationship.

When we talk about events, characters, actions, themes, feelings, and ideas, we use storytelling techniques daily.

“Here’s the story” is the way we begin some of our conversations. We share stories with others more often than we realize.

This article discusses the value of storytelling and details the mental health benefits of sharing stories.

The Link Between Storytelling and Mental Health

Annie Brewster, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and internist at Massachusetts General Hospital is the founder of Health Story Collaborative. She started this nonprofit organization to help patients and families make sense of trauma and a range of mental and physical health challenges. 

She also wanted to create a forum for story exchange and thereby transform healthcare through storytelling. She believes that stories connect us.

Research from the field of narrative psychology shows a link between narratives and well-being. Exploring personal stories, reflecting on them, changing these narratives, and sharing them might make us vulnerable, but also helps us heal and grow.

Mental Health Benefits of Storytelling

Here are some positive gains for your brain when you’re involved in storytelling. Just by telling stories, listening to stories and sharing stories we are doing something good for our mental health.

Boosts Listening Skills & Fosters Imagination

You become an active listener when you focus with all of your senses and give complete attention to stories. Becoming a better and active listener is a great social skill to have.

You also develop your imagination and expand your thinking by reading stories in books. You can use reading to exercise your brain’s health and fitness. Good imaginations can sometimes enable people to weather life’s stressors better.

When we watch a scary movie, we are immersed in Hollywood’s version of a story. During those two hours, we are being transported and living in an imagined world. The writer, director, costume designer, production crew and others are creating this story for us.

Increases Empathy & Memory Retention

When we connect with the characters in a story, our brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, a building block in helping us connect and deepen our relationships.

In addition to increasing empathy, another benefit we derive from storytelling is improved memory. Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information when it is weaved into narratives “up to 22 times more than facts alone.”

That’s why when we are carried along by a narrative, invested in an outcome, or moved emotionally, it’s the story’s power at work. It’s not facts and features that sway us.

Increases Positive Emotions

According to recent research in positive psychology, how we tell our stories controls our mood and self-image. Stories can uplift us and change our moods. This changed mood and outlook is no small matter.

A reasonable amount of positive emotion and optimism allows us to cope better with adversity and meet the obstacles we face.

In a study done with hospitalized children in intensive care, one storytelling session led to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, as well as positive emotional shifts in the children.

Storytelling’s power in regulating physiological and psychological functions is not to be dismissed. It’s a simple intervention in alleviating pain and discomfort and changing our emotional landscape.

Helps Those With Dementia

People with dementia have also benefited from participating in community storytelling and reminiscence therapy. Like many arts including music, storytelling has been shown to help senior community members tackle and improve their compromised memory issues.

Helps Us Engage With Others

Not only do speakers employ stories to captivate their audiences. Even scientists seeking to better connect with laypeople and the public at large are embracing storytelling.

A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience says while their work may involve neurobiological mechanisms, rather than presenting with scientific-journal type specifics, scientists are having success weaving in more stories.

That change could mean lecturing more about how their scientific work and process developed, conveying the information and details in a more personal way, or discussing research like a story to better engage their listeners.

Helps Us Build From Success and Failure

Changing your personal narrative in response to both success and failure can have positive effects. In research with adolescents regarding persistence and academic achievement, scientists found that new narratives can self-motivate in positive ways.

Success narratives can remind people how they were effective in goal achievement, thereby increasing their self-esteem and motivating them to aim for success again.

On the other hand, failure narratives are also powerful. When told in a new way, they can enable people to appreciate their attempts, give themselves credit for getting through their challenges and encourage them to see they’re better prepared to deal with challenges in the future.

Transforming Your Story

Narrative therapy helps people move past the problematic stories that hold them back in life. By challenging unhealthy beliefs and widening the way they view the stories of their life, they find alternative stories. This leads to new and healthier viewpoints moving forward.

In fact, recent research on narrative identity shows that when it comes to life stories, those who find redemptive meanings in their past challenges and adversity, and who tell their life stories with ideas that include agency, exploration or more open-mindedness enjoy higher levels of mental health, well-being, and maturity.

By choosing a different viewpoint, you can improve your mental health.

Let’s say, for example, your brother was the favorite when you grew up. You could grow up to be angry and bitter at the injustice of that. Or you might forgive your parents. You may rationalize that it was a cultural thing.

The act of telling stories helps us connect to others, make meaning, organize our lives into a coherent narrative and immerse ourselves in others’ tales. While we share stories, we are also improving our mental health and well-being.

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