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Narrative and Healing

Home  >  Narrative and Healing  >  Perspectives
Introduction to Narrative and Healing
By Aron S. Wolf, M.D.


There has been a great deal of research on how stress affects everyone's lives. The major focus of this work stemmed from the pioneering research by Hans Selye on the "Fight or Flight" Syndrome. This Syndrome described how all people and animals are equipped biologically with adrenaline or other brain proteins that help them react to acute life stress situations. These mechanisms are designed to help mobilize the person either to literally face or flee from a threatening physical situation. The response, however, is only "designed" to react to acute situations. There are no bodily mechanisms that help us with ongoing stress situations. In fact, when stress goes on for a long period of time, the body just keeps trying to respond as though it was new stress over and over again. In so doing, the body exhausts some of its flexibility and its biological coping mechanisms begin to break down. Thus when individuals are exposed to chronic and unremitting stress they begin to show signs and symptoms of illness. These signs and symptoms can show themselves in such simple means as chronic fatigue, the susceptibility to whatever "bug" is going around in the community, or they can have more dire consequences such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, anxiety or depression.

Aron S. Wolf, M.D. MMM

The reactions that are helpful in the short run actually become unhealthy in the long run. Thus the focus over the last century has been to find ways to reduce the stress in people's lives. One of the major advances in understanding stress came from researchers at the University of Washington. Holmes and Rhahe developed a stress rating scale, which has been validated over 30 years. They found that almost any "life change" produced stress. This included both "good" as well as "bad" life changes. They correlated their rating scale with the amount of illness that a person had over a one-year period. They found that there was a significant correlation between the amount of stress that a person had, the length of time that they had to deal with that stress, and the severity of one or other type of illness symptoms.

Relief of Stress

The relief of stress and stressors by narrative either verbal or in writing has also been known for over 100 years. The Europeans, starting with Mesmer and the use of hypnosis as "verbal healing," initiated this movement. It was certainly developed in detail by Freud and his followers. Freud in his development of analysis found that his patients became better when they "free associated." His patients, many of whom would be described today as "the worried well" actually became much healthier and more functional in their lives simply by sharing whatever thoughts came into their mind. Analysis and "talking therapy" is still the backbone of treatment with individuals when seen by mental health professionals. This is still true, even today when there are medications to help alleviate some of the more acute biological symptoms of depression anxiety and other physical and mental illnesses.

Writing and journalizing have been found to have very positive effects in reducing stress and have been used very successfully in a number of venues. The AA Twelve Step Programs focus significantly on writing one's thoughts and sharing them with oneself, and one's sponsor. A number of Life Management systems such as the Franklin-Covey model rely on thinking out one's day and goals and writing these down. They do this as a way of gaining control of the individual's life situations. There is also a significant movement in a number of cultures on reclaiming one's oral history as a way of grounding oneself to their heritage and their roots. George Pennebaker Ph.D. lays out this thesis very well in his book Opening Up. He sees "not talking and not writing" as an inhibition that is a health threat to anyone.

Narrative and Healing

All of this research and data show that both oral narrative and writing, either as journalizing, or in messages to others, are stress-relieving mechanisms that can reduce the external stresses. The narrating of one's thoughts certainly does not initially affect the external stressors one is facing. Narrating does, however, allow one to share these feelings with others and to organize one's thoughts around these issues. Many of the narratives that appear on LitSite Alaska, such as "Nora's Story " (in Family & Community > Family Collections), "Writing Truth, Three Generations" (in History & Culture > Life in Alaska), and "How My Dog Died" and "The Final Night" (in Narrative & Healing > Narratives), are wonderful examples of how writing and narrative allow individuals of all ages to move forward in their lives and their feelings by expressing themselves. The very act of committing one's thoughts to paper, e-mail, or recording facilitates a better and healthier formulation of the issues, and hopefully leads to decisions that can then react to and deal with life stresses.

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Related Articles
Nora's Story
The Patient's Story. The Doctor's Machine
Writing, Emotions and Memory
Stories and Healing: Observations on the Progress of My Thoughts
Writing as an Adjunct to Medical Therapy
Narrative Medicine

About the Author: Aron S. Wolf, M.D. MMM, Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association, has been a member of the medical community in Alaska since 1967.

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