How strangers use storytelling to help others — and themselves

Last December, as COVID-19 cases spiked and travel restrictions tightened, Deborah Goldstein and her 85-year-old mother traveled to a remote forest in Scotland.

There, instead of political pundits and up-to-date feeds, they met an animal-loving teenager, her evil stepmother, and 12 magical elves. In two weeks, they will be traveling somewhere elsewithout leaving their Manhattan apartment.

That remote destination in Scotland is the setting of a story told in free, virtual circle Goldstein, her mother, and dozens of others participate every Thursday. Hosted by New York Ethical Culture Association — one of many groups that create an online space to share stories — the circle gives credence to an ever-growing research group that connects storytelling with deep interests mental health, this is especially welcome as worry and loneliness keep climbing.
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Before Goldstein immersed herself in the stories of the virtual circle, she found herself “madly reading” a different kind of story: the news. But recent retirees soon realize that being constantly updated with the news is “a lot”—a feeling so pervasive that even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise breaks. Goldstein, who describes herself as anxious, realized she needed an outlet.

Although Goldstein says she has always loved folk telling stories, she had “never been to anything like this, or knew it existed” until Ethical Culture – a group she has long been a member of – started offering rings. Connect virtual storytelling during the pandemic. Now, for the past year and a half, she has been attending regularly. “It’s not about COVID, it’s not about politics, it’s just consolation,” Goldstein said of the circle. “I find my anxiety has definitely lessened.”

Goldstein is no longer alone: ​​a study of hospitalized children in Brazil establish that those who were told the stories with them experienced increased levels of oxytocin and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with the control group.

Daniel Weinshenker, Denver office director of StoryCenter—Another group that offers circles and webinars — says there’s a fundamental reason why storytelling can ease anxiety while creating comfort in uncertain times. Like the Ethics Association, StoryCenter circles take place via Zoom (with optional camera) and typically include between five and 25 people. But instead of a few narrators randomly sharing a made-up story, Weinshenker invites everyone in the room — sometimes in pairs — to share a true story related to a specific prompt, often involving regarding the “moment of change”. This can help people deal with changes, especially unwanted changes, that happen in their lives, he says. “Most of us go through life with a lot of assumptions and ideas that things are going to stay the same,” says Weinshenker, who is trained in social work. But when those assumptions are challenged, it can be deeply distressing. “[For instance], growing up in the Bay Area, we used to feel earthquakes,” he said. “But when someone just moves to San Francisco and the ground moves, it takes away their sense of normalcy and comfort, as well as their entire relationship with the ground and the world.”

COVID-19, in that sense, is like an earthquake, ushering in a period of time unprecedented loss, grief and uncertainty. But instead of forcing the narrator to explicitly talk about the uncertainty in their lives, Weinshenker’s prompt — for example, “talk about a little hero” — invites the narrator to choose how they prefer to cope, either by escaping that uncertainty or dealing with it directly. “You can go back to your childhood and talk about your grandma or your cat or a particular totem,” he explains. “Or you could talk about a little hero who got you through the day, which would ask you to talk about what was going on in your days that you needed rescuing.”

Based on one researchpatients struggling with drug abuse experienced a statistically significant reduction in depression and anxiety scores after they were treated with narrative therapy — a form of direct treatment of adverse events. benefit through storytelling. Another study establish that people who wrote stories based on “traumatic, stressful, or emotional events” saw improved physical and psychological health. And recently, supported by these promising results, Researchers guess that people who can create a positive and coherent narrative out of COVID-19 experience greater emotional well-being and have an easier time coping.

Still, Weinshenker was careful not to enforce the idea that the stories told in his workshop must have a happy ending forever. “We encourage people to be honest about what the closure means to them,” he said. “So even though [stressful] the situation has not changed, maybe they have accepted it. ”

In addition to the benefits that arise from dealing with individual stressors, Weinshenker says, sharing stories as a group can produce shared benefits: confirming that “the world is tough. ” and connect around the ways people are “struggling” through tough things with each other.

A sense of shared resilience against mutual struggle may explain why storytelling is so successful in healthcare settings: when engaged in storytelling activities, patients breast cancer, dementia and chronic disease are shown reduce social isolation, improved quality of life, and stronger peer-to-peer link. And while it can’t be measured, the group format — based on listeners asking questions and sharing thoughts — gives storytellers special insight into themselves. “Stories combine with stories,” says Weinshenker, “And when you have the space to hear other people’s stories or think about your own, it invites you to listen to yourself in a different way. ”

Often, storytellers don’t know why they choose to tell certain stories, or what impact those stories make, until they share them with the group, he said. He pointed to a recent example: when a nurse who often works with first-time mothers and babies was unable to visit home during a pandemic, she told a seemingly unrelated person. Mandarin story about a little bird that she saves from outside her window. “She didn’t realize it before, but in telling this story, she makes all the connections about how she takes care of this bird the same way she used to take care of patients and their children,” Weinshenker explains. “She realizes what she’s lost in the last 18 months and how she’s coping.”

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