"Become aware what is in you. Announce it, pronounce it, produce it and give birth to it." - Meister Eckhart

11 February 2011

Storytelling Leads to Better Health

This week the New York Times carried a report from the Annals of Internal Medicine entitled "When Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/health/views/10chen.html). In it the author describe how a recent study showed that listening to and telling stories--particular personal stories--helps to improve a patient's health. In a study of patients with high blood pressure they discovered that "listening to personal narratives helped control high blood pressure as effectively as the addition of more medications."

According to Dr Thomas K. Houston, leader of the study, stories help patients makes sense of what is happening to them. He states, “We learn through stories, and we use them to make sense of our lives. It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.”

And, according to the more than two dozen respondents who have already replied to the story, most would agree with Dr. Houston. Here are just some of their comments:

"Storytelling lies at the heart of how patients communicate with their physicians and nurses." (a doctor)

"I want to add that the arts in healthcare is just that at many levels and much of it is about storytelling, narrative and ways understanding the ‘new’ story unfolding. It helps process at emotional, intellectual and I believe, the Soul/Spirit level." (a coach and counselor)

"This is nothing new. Aristotle told us this in “Poetics,” that the art of storytelling is what gives us a shareable world. Health, dis-ease, illness, death–we have been telling each other stories of these since the beginning of time. Perhaps what is new is that US-based medicine is catching on that human communication through narrative is important for health and health care." (Associate Professor of Nursing, University of Washington)

"People make sense of their own experience and the world around them through storytelling. A narrative gives a sense of control that is a valuable resource in the healing process." (organisational psychologist)

"This is not surprising at all – storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human. I have long believed in the value and power of the story in medicine and healing." (a doctor)

"Story telling is CRITICAL in helping patients with cognitive impairment and brain aging in general. It provides a great release and helps in the treatment of depression much less verbal communication skills." (Doctor specialising in Alzeihmer's)

What these and the many other comments reminds us of is what many of us know intuitively: storytelling transforms and heals. We've been doing it for as long as humans have gathered to share their experiences. Neuroscience tells us that we're 'hard-wired' for story, that we make sense of our experiences by reforming them into narratives.

I've even read that there's some evidence to suggest that brains of soldiers suffering from PSD are actually having difficulties processing the horrendous experiences into narrative form. Once transformed into story, these experiences can be assimilated into the memory storage area of the brain rather than remain caught in a horrible loop of pain, fear and haunting devastation.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that PSD or any other illness can be cured just like that by telling or listening to a story. But a growing body of anecdotal and now empirical evidence is supporting the idea that the sharing of stories helps us feel better and improves our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

I look forward to your comments and stories.

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"We have received only very positive reports of your workshop, and must thank you for being so flexible and responsive both before and in the course of implementing the workshop. It has been lovely to work with you. . . . We are hopeful this project will give rise to future storytelling endeavours, and would be very happy to work with you again if the opportunity arises!" Muireann Crowley, At Home in Scotland, University of Edinburgh, May 2014 ("Storytelling, Research and Public Engagement" workshop)

Michael Williams is a a storyteller of compelling skill. He is also a fine human being who engages in all situations and draws people into the warmth of communication and shared experience." Donald Smith, Director, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh Scotland

"Michael's understanding of storytelling within a leadership and business context has helped us provide a great service in helping leaders determine their personal and organisational destiny and legacy. Working with Michael is inspiring and fun; and pulls you to be fully engaged from start to finish." Norton Bertram-Smith, Managing Director and Leadership Consultant for On Purpose.

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