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The healing power of storytelling

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

A young woman sits at a table in a cafe writing in her journal

I’ve experienced the restorative power of writing firsthand. With each draft of my memoir, the pain of my divorce lessened, and I began to heal through the pages. As an editor, I’ve worked with victims of gun violence who’d never told their stories before writing them with me. I watched how transformative it was for them to share their experiences out loud.

Because of the catharsis it inspires, the act of storytelling has woven its way into the therapeutic space and is being used to uncover and even heal some of our deepest wounds.

Writing helps people find a voice when they may not be able to otherwise. Many of us struggle to talk about fear or trauma because we don’t have the words for what we’re feeling, or we may be carrying too much shame or guilt to allow room for processing it. Some of us live or work in cultural communities where talking about mental health is uncommon or even discouraged. Writing is an accessible tool that lets anyone express themselves openly.

How our bodies express emotional pain

When people write about the experiences they’ve had, feelings they’ve held, or pain they’ve endured, something happens to their physical bodies as well. This deep, emotional work is often referred to as expressive writing.1

Researchers have explored the physical toll of keeping a traumatic or stressful secret locked inside your body. They discovered that by writing about that event, a person can help their body enter a more relaxed state. Expressive writing has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve the immune system, and even decrease visits to the doctor.2 Writing expressively is also good for our brains: Research has shown that writing strengthens your memory and can help relieve symptoms of depression.3, 4

Writing has also shown tangible results as a therapeutic tool. In one study, college students saw their GPAs rise after they had the chance to write about stressful events.5 Another study found that professionals who wrote about the trauma of losing their jobs found new employment more quickly than those who didn’t.6

Storytelling in therapy spaces

Psychologists and other mental health professionals have embraced the power of storytelling in therapy practice and are using it in a variety of ways.

Narrative therapy: In this mode of practice, people act as experts on their own lives, constructing new stories around life events and deconstructing problematic ones.7 “Narrative therapy allows you to be able to reflect on a difficult situation or something you went through from where you are now, then find a sense of closure by rewriting the story from that perspective,” says bibliotherapist Bijal Shah (see below to learn more about bibliotherapy). The goal is to reframe the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories.

Journal therapy: Journal therapy is the purposeful use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness.8 Journaling is different than keeping a diary in that it focuses on the internal workings of an event or feeling. Your therapist may ask you to reflect on a specific prompt or to share thoughts and feelings about anything you wish.

Written exposure therapy (WET): This five-session exposure-based intervention was developed for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A 2019 study of military veterans engaged in this practice showed a decrease in PTSD symptoms and a continuation of those benefits months later.9 WET also has a lower dropout rate than other forms of trauma therapy.

Take a look, it’s in a book

We clearly benefit from telling our own stories, but what about engaging with other people’s stories? It turns out those are good for us as well. Literature has been used as a therapeutic tool since at least the early 19th century, though the term “bibliotherapy” wasn’t coined until 1916.10 Shah started using this method after realizing how often literature had played a role in her own therapy.

Here’s how her bibliotherapy practice works:

Clients are prescribed materials. Shah asks her clients to fill out an extensive questionnaire on their preferences about genre (romance, mystery, action, and so on) and format (audiobooks, paperbacks, digital books, and so on). Then she sends them a “prescription” for reading materials. Books are at the heart of bibliotherapy, but Shah also likes to include individual poems and other types of writing. To check out her recommended reading for certain situations and life events, visit her A to Z book list.

They read and reflect. Writing plays a key role in bibliotherapy, too. After reading a piece of literature from the list, clients write their thoughts in a journal and bring it to their session with Shah. “We’ll talk about what feelings they’ve had and whether they’re connecting with the book,” she explains. “It starts becoming a counseling session, but what we’re doing is using the literature as a prompt.”

They begin therapeutic work. The literature Shah prescribes is a vehicle for the real work of counseling. She finds that it helps her clients, especially those who’ve never been to therapy or have difficulty opening up, feel more comfortable in sessions. “If your defenses are up, it’s very hard to talk about yourself,” says Shah. “It feels safer to talk about it through a character or through a protagonist.”

The benefits of reading

While storytelling serves our minds and bodies, reading can help us build empathy, contextualize world events, and better understand complex concepts like love, faith, and prejudice. Developing emotional intelligence is one of the reasons why educators place such an emphasis on reading in early childhood.11

Spending time with our noses in books also has a host of physical benefits. Reading regularly can ward off cognitive decline and help keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay.12 According to a 2017 study, reading can even help us live longer by strengthening two of our essential brain functions: emotional intelligence and making connections between text and the outside world.13

Sharing stories with others

Stories have a way of tying people together, which is why reading and writing groups can feel so intimate and powerful. A group may grow from close proximity, bringing together family members, friends, or coworkers. Other groups—such as assault survivors, veterans, people with advanced illnesses, people grieving loved ones, or people who are incarcerated—form by circumstance and are often led by mental health professionals. They frequently use journaling or other forms of writing to share personal experiences.

Shah has hosted bibliotherapy groups for grieving people and believes they offer members a safe space for connection. “The thing about group work is you really don’t feel alone,” she says. “In the outside world, it can feel quite isolating when you’re going through an experience.” Through their journals, she adds, participants can also “keep a bit of whatever they’ve lost alive.”

“Grief is like a scar,” says Shah. “It will never go away, but should be honored.” These gatherings provide a place for that to happen.

Creative writing or memoir groups, often led by an experienced writer or educator, are supportive, collaborative spaces designed to spark creativity and help you shape and finish your story. Book clubs are another great way to connect with people and have meaningful discussions. Many writing groups and book clubs moved online during the pandemic and have stayed there, making them more accessible. Shah also offers an online bibliotherapy course for readers and mental health practitioners to learn how the practice works.

All these resources can be effective even for those who’ve never written before, Shah says: “It’s not so much about the skill of the writing—it’s about the feelings and being able to put them down on paper.”

If you’d like support from a therapist in telling, understanding, or revising your own story, we can help. Browse our directory to find a licensed professional near you.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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