The Psychological Importance of Storytelling

psychological importance of storiesHuman beings have been telling each other stories ever since we first daubed drawings on a cave wall.  As children stories help us to develop empathy, understanding and a moral code (Vitz, 1990).  Stories are how we connect with each other, how we establish our similarities and our differences (Chamberlin, 2003).  Stories help us to learn and to grow.  I cannot over-emphasise the psychological importance of storytelling.

Most of us have a natural ability to tell stories in a structured and cohesive way – with a beginning, a middle and an end.  We may enhance a story to make it more amusing or more dramatic.  We may change our language to reflect the needs and capabilities of our audience, but we still tell the story.

Stories in a Therapeutic Setting

In a therapeutic setting, the psychological importance of storytelling becomes even more pronounced.  The client is offering a narrative of their life, trusting that the therapist will listen and understand.  The more empathy that is shown the more open the client is able to be.  It is often the case that a client offers their story to the therapist in the hopes that a professional will know what to do with it, how to fix things.  In reality, the really transformative work begins when the client hears their own story.

In order to tell your own story to a stranger you have to give it context, background, structure and detail.  You may hear your whole story in one sitting, possibly for the first time ever.  Therapists will pick out salient points and emotional details.  They will paraphrase to show you that you have been heard and understood.  Within that process, you will hear some of the important parts of your story reflected back to you.  The very act of sharing your story helps you to understand what it is about.

For example, some years ago I worked with a client who lived with an abusive partner.  Her friends and family were aware of some of the issues but not of the severity.  In telling her story to them she had felt a need to protect them and defend her partner so they had heard only edited snippets.  In telling me her whole story she heard the unedited version for the first time.  There was a key and important moment when she stopped and looked at me in surprise: “He’s a bastard isn’t he?”  This moment was transformative.  Of course, real life is not a fairy tale, she added many more chapters to her story before she effected lasting change but afterwards she identified this moment as pivotal.

Stories in a Time of Covid-19

Recently, I have been reflecting on the psychological importance of stories during this current Coronavirus lockdown.  So far, I think too many individual stories are missing from the overall narrative.

At a governmental level, we are given statistics.  Night after night we listen to the day’s death count and look at impenetrable graphs comparing the data from previous weeks and from other countries.  But we are not moved by numbers, we are moved by stories.  Those people who ignore the lockdown are not motivated to stay at home by 30,000 lost lives.  But they might be influenced by one story with which they can identify.  This week we have also marked the 75th anniversary of VE day.  Most of us will have gained more compassionate understanding of the war from individual stories (real and fictional) than we ever have from the cold statistics.  As a nation we need individual stories of loss and of hope to really understand this pandemic.

Front line medical staff and other key workers are all individuals with individual stories.  Every time we call them heroes we commit them to one narrative, to one story with a predictable and sometimes devastating ending.  As a hero it becomes very difficult to admit to weakness, to ask for help or to tell your own story when that story seems to be too far off script.  The psychological weight of carrying your front line experiences quietly and heroically must sometimes be overwhelming.

The majority of us, staying at home as instructed, are told that “we are all in this together”.  Once again, the sense that everyone is the same denies people their own narrative.  People may feel that their story doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of this crisis.  Last week I spoke to someone who had lost a loved one and had been unable to attend the funeral.  She told me, in an apologetic tone, that he hadn’t died of Covid-19, as if that somehow made her loss less important.

Every day I hear someone say, “Well at least I still have a job/am not home schooling/am fit and healthy” etc.  Showing empathy for other people is wonderful as is the ability to feel gratitude but you still have the right to own and tell your own story.  If you were the only person whose life had changed so dramatically  you would recognise the bizarre nature of your situation.  The fact that something similar is happening to everyone else does not lessen the psychological impact on you.

Tell your Story

So, I invite you tell your coronavirus story, with a beginning a middle and a temporary end.

Maybe:

  • Tell a friend and then agree to listen to theirs, all the way from start to finish.
  • Write it down (maybe keep a journal) and read it aloud to yourself, in the mirror.
  • Contact a counsellor and tell them your story – many, like me, are working remotely at the moment, using Zoom or similar.
  • Write it down and email it to me – I promise to read and acknowledge it.  fiona@yellowdotwomen.com

Never underestimate the psychological importance of storytelling.  Your story matters.  In the telling of it you may find that you experience your own transformative moment.

What to do when the fear is real

More love less fear poster in light of CoronavirusMuch of my time as a counsellor and coach is spent working with people whose feelings of fear and anxiety are out of sync with the reality of their situation.  I support and help them to see their situation more clearly, to breathe and take stock of their reality.  They learn techniques to calm themselves, to take control of their irrational fears.  But what happens when the fear they feel is real?  When the anxiety is entirely proportionate to the situation?  Do the usual strategies stop working?  I thought, in these strange and troubling times, it might be helpful to reignite the Yellow Dot Women blog and write a piece about what to do when the fear is real.

What is fear?

Fear is a survival mechanism; a biochemical response to danger which triggers the fight or flight response.  Physiological changes, such as a higher heart rate and boosted adrenalin levels, increase our alertness and prepare us to fight the trigger or to run away from it.

Alongside the physical reaction we experience an emotional response to fear.  This response is highly individualised and will depend, to a large extent, on our previous experiences and our personal attitude to risk.

The causes of fear

The causes of fear are many and complex.  Fear might be:

  • Instinctive – caused by real and immediate danger (e.g. a car heading towards you at speed).
  • Learned (conditioned) – such as the fear of spiders or other, relatively harmless, creatures.
  • Imagined (anticipatory), caused by our own catastrophising thought processes and the ever spiralling “what-ifs”.

What about now?

Covid-19/Coronavirus is now prevalent across the whole world.  We are no longer waiting for it to arrive – it is here and most of us now know someone who is experiencing (or has already experienced) symptoms.  The virus is having an impact on all our lives.  To this extent it is a real and present danger not only to our physical health but to our intellectual, financial and social well-being.  It is entirely appropriate to be afraid.  What matters is what we do when the fear is real.

Control

When faced with a frightening, stress inducing situation the stress hormones we produce are designed to trigger the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This in turn “fires us up”, ready for action (fight).  The normal advice in the face of fear is to control the situation and thus reduce the overstimulation of the SNS.  But that is not so easy when the situation, as with the Coronavirus, is entirely out of your control.

Escape

When control is not an option, the normal advice would be to escape the fear inducing situation (flight).  However, this pandemic is so far reaching that there is nowhere to escape to.

So are we helpless?

No.  We are absolutely not helpless.  As well as the Sympathetic Nervous System the body can utilise the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), sometimes called the “rest and digest” system which acts as an antidote to the fire-up mechanism of the SNS.  This allows us to employ calm and rational thought once the urgency of the situation is diminished.

You don’t need to understand the science – these systems are automatic.

What to do when the fear is real?

The first thing to do is to accept that the fear is real and that it is ok to be afraid.

After that, when the calming PNS sets in, it’s a good idea to identify what you can and can’t control.  Following government guidelines, washing your hands and social distancing are all forms of control.  Secondary activities such as talking to your bank/building society, employer or accountant etc. are also forms of control which can reduce the fear you are feeling.

When you have taken action it is then ok to indulge in a little positive escapism:  Read a book; watch a film; play with your kids; take part in on-line activities with friends or learn a new skill.  Be creative.  The use of alcohol and/or drugs to escape is significantly less helpful as it stops the body from doing the job it needs to do.

If you find that the calming effect of the PNS is not kicking in you should ask yourself if you are feeding the fear.  Spending too long on social media, engaging with “fake news”, obsessively following the death statistics, having the same conversations ad infinitum, all serve to trigger the fight or flight response over and over again.  The PNS simply can’t keep up with the imagined or anticipatory fear if you keep feeding it.

If you are repeatedly feeding the fear it may be useful to seek some help, to connect more positively with other people and to think about what you can do rather than how helpless you are.

As always, please get in touch if you are struggling to cope emotionally or psychologically.

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