How Stories Heal 

Healthcare today is shifting towards a more human-focused system in which the patient has a face and a story to tell in addition to having biochemical results and scanned images to show. Increasingly more people today are aware that curing and healing not always one and the same process. A patient can be healed without being cured, and likewise he can be cured without being healed.

How then do stories facilitate healing?

The act of storytelling is a natural human process that helps a person to understand himself and his life experiences. The process allows him to organise and recall events in a coherent fashion while integrating thoughts and feelings. This gives him a sense of predictability and control over his own life. Once an experience has a structure that is shrouded with meaning, the emotional effects of that experience becomes more manageable.

When a physician obtains a patient’s history, it is important for him to make the distinction between clinical facts and stories. Facts are neutral statements and have little emotional impact on the patient until he adds his meaning onto them. When a patient tells a story about himself and his illness, he adds meaning to the facts and creates an ongoing narrative to help himself make meaning of his life situation and come to terms with his illness. The act of constructing the story facilitates a sense of resolution on his part. It gives rise to less rumination and allows disturbing experiences to subside from conscious thought.

Patient stories can be told through different mediums including oral, written and artistic mediums. What remains largely unaware to many people is that when story retrieval and sharing is done under a hypnotic or trance state, the process becomes a significantly more powerful tool for healing. The ability that regression therapy has in helping the patient to confer meaning to the facts of his life events is precisely the value that it can bring and add to mainstream medicine.

Regression therapy gets to the root of a patient’s problem by helping him to retrieve the relevant stories of his past for psychological processing. Emotional wounds from previous hurt are important vehicles for exploring the essential nature of the individual. Stories about them help to reveal the deepest textures of his heart and soul. Through the stories of his wounds, the patient can reveal his conscious attitudes, thoughts, emotions, and aspirations as well as discover his unconscious motivations, values, intuitions, beliefs and fears. When he opens himself to the pain of his stories in the presence of a therapist without holding back, he aligns the essential nature of his being. The moment of profound insight that comes from sharing his thoughts with the therapist about his wounds would tend to force him into an awareness about himself, his relationship with others and his place in the world.

Extensive research has revealed that when a patient puts his emotional upheavals into words, his mental and physical health improves significantly. The act of converting emotions and guided imagery into words changes the way the patient organises and thinks about his earlier life trauma. Part of the distress caused by the trauma resides not only in the events themselves but also in his emotional reactions to them. By integrating thoughts and feelings, the patient will be able to construct a coherent narrative of his experience with greater ease.

Often a story constructed when a patient was a child or in the midst of a trauma may be insufficient in later life when new information is discovered or a broader perspective is adopted. A past story, especially one that is being relived or re-experienced under trance helps to generate new knowledge that helps the patient to organise the emotional effects of the experience as well as the experience itself. A coherent, organised structure of the story obtained under trance is a good way of giving meaning to an event and helping the patient to manage the associated emotions wisely. In the same way that facts can evolve into a story, knowledge can evolve into wisdom. When a therapist decides to awaken the patient's sleeping wisdom through a regressed story rather than to convince the patient of a perspective through facts, a subtle but powerful shift occurs. The patient learns to make a "wise' rather than a "right" decision in resolving his issue.

Suggested Reading:

James W. Pennebaker, Janel D. Seagal. Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 55(10), 1243-1254 (1999).