How Stories Heal Us

In his own medical practice, this doctor-author has witnessed first-hand the power that stories have to heal us. Here are the seven reasons why stories are effective and powerful medicine.

1. Stories interpret our sensory experiences of the world in an unbroken chain of experiences that connect past events to the present, as well as to an imagined or desired future. These stories “summarize” our experiences to make them manageable to remember, tell others, and tell ourselves. Without stories, life would be an unbroken stream of sensory impressions without separation, organization, or editing. We have to make stories to organize experience into discrete packets that we can handle.

2. People tell stories to show others who they are. Families tell stories that define their family–which manifest at weddings and funerals as, “Remember the time when. . .” Communities tell stories to construct identity, as in stories about the town’s founder or the great chief for whom the reservation was named. Countries tell stories that come to be known as the history of that country (Paul Revere’s ride, George Washington’s cherry tree). Stories simulate identity in each conversation in which they are told.

3. Stories pull together observations, experiences, sensations, and perceptions into a unified whole that has plot, characters, meaning, action, beginning and end.

4. These stories tell us what we need to know to interpret the world. They tell us what we need to know to classify and interpret new experiences. They tell us how to make sense out of what is happening around us. With out these stories we would be lost.

5. Culture arises from the synthesis of all the stories lived by a group of people in a particular time and place.

6. Stories offer us way to speak eloquently and directly about concepts that are otherwise hard to define and communicate, like self and identity. Stories give us a fluidity of expression, an opportunity for improvisation, and a way to design alternatives.

7. The stories we tell inform our audience of how we want to be understood.

When we reconnect with our stories, our lives are enhanced. Stories can transform people, inspiring and motivating change and healing. When we become conscious of the negative stories we are telling about ourselves, we can look instead for more life-affirming and self-loving ways of telling those stories that will lead to more healed ways of being in the world.

Adapted from Narrative Medicine, by Lewis Mehl-Madrona (Inner Traditions, 2007). Copyright (c) 2007 by Lewis Mehl-Madrona. Reprinted by permission of Inner Traditions.
Adapted from Narrative Medicine, by Lewis Mehl-Madrona (Inner Traditions, 2007).

15 comments

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Very interesting. Thank you.

Robert O.
Robert O.3 years ago

They're great for bonding, sharing experiences and insight and can serve as very useful learning tools for others. Thanks Annie.

Heidi H.
Past Member 4 years ago

I once had a debate with someone as to whether family history stories are important in our present lives. I think they can be. Do stories passed down from our ancestors affect lives? Should we dismiss them and move on?

Zee Kallah
.5 years ago

Parables reveal truth.

Truth, applied, heals.

K s Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

OflinePEACEARTH P.

TY. I had so many personal things to add, but i must say Brnda Brayman said it much more eloquently and quite to the point than I ever could.

Mary L.
Mary L.6 years ago

I love telling the stories of my grandparents to my children and grandchildren. Both of them grew up in Hungary and were born in the 1890's. They lived their lives going from horses and wagons to seeing men on the moon and more. Amazing to think of and remember and share.

Janice P.
Janice P.6 years ago

I really liked this article. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of Joseph Campbell's "Power of Myth".

gail d.
gail dair6 years ago

thankyou

Janice P.
Janice P.6 years ago

This article meant more to me than you can imagine. I have had a very difficult time since losing my father, my 4 closest friends, and especially my mother within the last 5 years. I began to realize the value of the stories I have stored in my memory, which are associated with each one of them.

I just happened to see this article on a very difficult day, when I have been missing them - my mother, especially, because it is only 5 more days until I will experience my first Mother's Day without her. Maybe recounting those stories about her - and my father - will help ease the pain of this first solo Mother's Day. Thank you very much.