How strangers tell stories to help others – and themselves

Last December, as the number of COVID-19 cases peaked and travel restrictions were tightened, Deborah Goldstein and her 85-year-old mother traveled to a distant forest in Scotland.

There, instead of political pundits and ominous news feeds, they met an animal-loving teenager, her evil stepmother and 12 magical elves. In two weeks they will travel elsewhere – without leaving their Manhattan apartment.

That distant destination in Scotland was the setting for one story told in the free, virtual circle that Goldstein, her mother and dozens of others join every other Thursday. Hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture — one of several groups creating online spaces for story-sharing — the circle gives credence to a growing body of research linking storytelling to profound mental health benefits, which is especially welcome right now. anxiety and loneliness continue to increase .
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Before being immersed in the stories of the virtual circle, Goldstein found herself reading a different kind of story “rabidly”: the news. But the recent retiree soon realized that constantly following the news was “a lot” — a feeling so ubiquitous that even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised taking breaks. Goldstein, a self-described anxious person, realized she needed an escape.

Although Goldstein says she’s always been fond of folktales, she “never went to anything like this, or knew it existed” until Ethical Culture—a group she had long been a member of—started virtual storytelling circles during the pandemic. to offer. Now, for a year and a half, she is regularly present. “It wasn’t about COVID, it wasn’t about politics, it was just reassuring,” Goldstein says of the circle. “I noticed that my anxiety was definitely decreasing.”

Goldstein is far from alone: ​​A study of hospitalized children in Brazil found that those told their stories experienced increased levels of oxytocin and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than a control group.

Daniel Weinshenker, director of the Denver office of StoryCenter — another group that offers online circles and workshops — says there’s a primary reason storytelling could reduce anxiety while providing comfort during times of uncertainty. Like Ethical Society, StoryCenter’s circles take place via Zoom (with the camera optional) and usually consist of five to 25 people. But instead of a few storytellers randomly telling a made-up story, Weinshenker invites everyone in the room—sometimes in pairs—to share a true story related to a specific prompt, usually with a “moment of change.” This, he says, can help people cope with the changes, especially the unexpected ones, that happen in their own lives. “Most of us go through life with a lot of assumptions and an idea that things will stay the way they are,” says Weinshenker, who is trained in social work. But when those assumptions are challenged, it can cause deep anxiety. “[For instance]“When we grew up in the Bay Area, it was normal to feel earthquakes,” he says. “But when someone new moved to San Francisco and moved the ground, it would blow them out of their normal and comfortable feeling and their whole relationship with the ground and the world.”

In that sense, COVID-19 has been like an earthquake, ushering in a period of unprecedented loss, grief and uncertainty. But instead of forcing storytellers to talk explicitly about the uncertainty in their lives, Weinshenker’s prompts—to, say, “talk about a little hero”—invite storytellers to choose how they prefer to cope, by escaping that uncertainty. or process it directly. “You could escape to childhood and talk about your grandmother or your cat or a special totem,” he explains. “Or you could talk about a little hero who gets you through the day, forcing you to talk about what’s going on in your days that you need to be saved from.”

According to one study, patients who struggled with substance abuse experienced a statistically significant reduction in depression and anxiety scores after being treated with narrative therapy — a form of direct processing of side effects through storytelling. Another study found that people who wrote stories based on “traumatic, stressful, or emotional events” saw improvements in physical and psychological health. And more recently, bolstered by these promising results, researchers predicted that those who could create a positive and coherent story from COVID-19 would experience greater emotional well-being and easier coping.

Still, Weinshenker makes sure he doesn’t force the idea that the stories told in his workshop must have a long and happy ending. “We encourage people to be honest about what closure means to them,” he says. “So, although the [stressful] situation has not changed, perhaps their acceptance of it.”

In addition to the benefits that come from dealing with individual stressors, sharing stories as a group, Weinshenker says, can bring shared benefits: confirmation that “the world is hard” and connection around the ways people struggle through the difficult things” together. ‘.

That sense of shared resilience to a mutual struggle could explain why storytelling has had such success in healthcare: When involved in storytelling, patients with breast cancer, dementia and chronic diseases showed reduced social isolation. , improved quality of life and stronger peer-to-peer bonds. And while not as measurable, the grouping—based on listeners asking questions and sharing reflections—gives storytellers a special insight into themselves. “Stories beget stories,” says Weinshenker, “And having the space to hear other people’s stories or think about your own invites you to listen to yourself in a different way.”

He says storytellers often don’t know why they choose to tell certain stories, or what impact those stories have, until after they’ve shared it with the group. He points to a recent example: When a nurse who normally works with first-time mothers and babies was unable to make home visits during the pandemic, she told a seemingly unrelated story about a small bird she brought in from outside. saved her window. “She hadn’t realized it before, but by telling this story, she’s making all these connections about how she cared for this bird in the same way she did for her patients and their babies,” Weinshenker explained. “She acknowledges what she’s lost over the past 18 months and how she’s dealt with it.”

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