Strengthening Resilience Through The Power Of Story

Telling stories about our pain, problems, and hard-won perspective can be a cathartic release, a testament to overcoming adversity, and a gift to the listener, all at once. Research shows that connection to other people through shared experience, even if we do not know them well, strengthens internal psychological resilience while building social bonds. “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails,” stated Dean Becker, the president and CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company that develops and delivers programs about resilience training, in an interview for Harvard Business Review. “That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

The links between story and resilience-building is part psychology, part neurobiology. According to another Harvard Business Review article which details some of the science involved, “Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus.” The fun, engaging parts of a story “release oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”

A memory is elevated into a story through a creative process that requires self-reflection, through taking stock of ourselves and our circumstances from a wide lens. Resilience, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors, grows through this process. To recognize what we were up against — the emotions, the struggle, what we have lost and what we have learned —is one level of resilience. To communicate that to others effectively can be transformative to our sense of self. The language we use to describe an experience becomes the truth we carry around about it. “Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow,” writes Maria Konnikova in “How People Learn To Become Resilient” in The New Yorker. “Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.”

A study published in the journal Family Process looked at the role of stories to shape our sense of self, based on the idea that “narratives create meaning and provide perspective on our past and on our lives and thus are clearly related to sense of self.” The study supported the premise that family narratives “provide understanding, evaluation, and perspective on the events of our lives. Through narrative interactions about the shared past, parents help shape children’s understanding of who they were, who they are now, and presumably who they will be in the future, both as individuals and as members of the family. Thus, although family communication and interaction in other contexts and settings is clearly important, the role of family narratives may be particularly critical for children’s developing sense of self.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Samberg, who cast a wide net in her search for resources to help her young children face the long-term impact of life-changing loss after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death, learned from a number of experts the significance of stories to well-being, even if they are not happy ones. “When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history — where their grandparents grew up, what their parents’ childhoods were like — they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of mattering and belonging.” In her New York Times piece “How To Build Resilient Kids, Even After A Loss” she shares the encouraging news that “resilience — which leads to better health, greater happiness and more success — isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.”

Stories — both sharing our perception of experiences and listening to those of others — are at the heart of working this muscle, and not just for kids. Through story, we can come to terms with, and make meaning of what happened and must be faced, and this applies to people of any age. “Science has proven that one of the major ways the brain operates is by taking facts and organizing them into a story. Once created, that story (a person’s perception of reality) then allows that person to sort reality to conform to it. Consequently, the first building block of a person’s resilience is crafting a meaningful story and then supporting it with facts,” writes Forbes Women’s Media writer Nancy F. Clark in “How To Develop Resilience And Make Yourself The Hero Of Your Own Story” on Forbes.com.

Listening to others’ stories can also enrich appreciation of perseverance through a long struggle against obstacles and the perspective-taking that often comes from examining it in detail, also traits linked to resilience. Neuroscientist Paul Zak explains that reading or listening to stories — this includes good fiction that details the emotional lives of others as well as true accounts of personal experiences — triggers a release of oxytocin, the hormone associated with empathy, trust and relationship-building. This brain activity strengthens social bonds and the psychologically powerful sense of being heard and understood by others.

Power of Story Group Exercises

A Story About Your Name

Objectives:

Provide a structured way for group members to learn about one another

Give an opportunity for each group member to tell a brief story

Provide an exercise that deepens the emotional connection among members

Each group members shares something about their name, e.g. why they were given their name based on family history, culture, or events. Key details should be the environment, customs, beliefs (religion, for example) that impacted the choice of name. If a person does not know how or why they were given their name, that is the story.

Debrief: As each member shares, similarities among the details shared will emerge. These subtle threads of connection are discussed, as well as how it feels to be in the room before during and after this process.

Port Key

Ted DesMaisons writes about the origin of the name of this exercise in his blog post “Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set Of Improv Games For The Classroom and Work Enviroment” on website Anima Learning: “The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world.”

Objectives:

Enhance the sense of belonging within the group;

Create emotional and social connections within group members;

Increase knowledge about moments in each participant’s life;

Provide an opportunity to share without overthinking;

The group sits in a circle, and player #1 gets a suggestion for an everyday object, e.g. Towel. Player #1 begins to share a story arising from the word, starting with the image it inspires, e.g. “Towel takes me to a day at the beach with my little sister…” and finishing the story with an object that is then offered to the next person: “and we took the seashells into the house and put them in a vase with flowers. So I give you a vase.”

2nd ROUND — choose a category of sensory experience, e.g. a color, a sound, a texture. These can be written on sheets of paper and one pulled out, so that no one is really in charge of what it turns out to be (more improvisational). To start this round, once the category is chosen — e.g. color — someone from the group names a color — e.g. yellow — and the director begins with an association from his/her own personal memories, saying “Yellow takes me to the color of the house I grew up in. I remember when we got the siding that changed the color and look of the house completely. It was a 70 year old farmhouse with chipped paint all over, then my Dad stripped all that wood and put up yellow siding. It was like a brand new house, and I never forgot how much work that took but how amazing it is to take something old and make it look entirely new.” Then from that story, a color is extracted and “given” to the next person in the circle e.g., “when the old wood was taken off the house, there was a dark brown layer I remember clearly. I give you dark brown.” The next person will then allow dark brown to “take” him/her to some memory. The idea is not to overthink it, to let the image form and just describe it, and let the process of describing it reveal emotions or other connections to one’s history, identity and the meaning of experience.

DEBRIEF: What do we now know about people in the group that we did not know before? What is it like to allow something to “land” and not be able to plan or predict it? What connections exist among group members that are revealed through this exercise?

Enriching stories with sensory details is an important skill for sustaining the attention of the listener, which is at the heart of what a story is about — to share a part of ourselves and connect with other people. Research published in the Journal Of Cognitive Science showed that when the brain hears an action word, it responds as if the listener is engaged in that action. So when a storyteller says “I waltz to the door,” the motor cortex lights up. “I straighten the collar of my velvety silk blouse” ignites the sensory cortex. “My heart races with a mix of wild excitement and anxiety as I open the door” triggers these emotions in the listener. When the brain experiences rich imagery and emotionally compelling moments the story has the greatest impact and is more likely to be remembered. (You can read more about this in my article “When Stories Kill: Its The Brain Science That Did It” on medium.com

5-BEAT STORY STRUCTURE

Set-Up: What is the main character’s situation or perspective with regard to this story. Set a story with important details that place the main character in a time, place and emotional state. Use sensory and emotional details to bring the audience into that emotional and physical space as much as possible.

Inciting Incident: something happens that impacts the main character’s situation or perspective, and he/she must respond. A game-changing moment, an upset to the status quo, an unexpected turn of events. Bring immediacy — using imagery and sensory details to this part of the story as much as possible.

Rising Action: as a result of the inciting incident, the main character makes some choices, which have consequences, and impact the main character.

Climax: The rising action leads to a turning point — the emotional tension rises to a heightened intensity, possibly a breakthrough moment, a low point that forces a redirection or a high point that lights the way.

Transformation: Where this emotional journey takes the main character. What is changed as a result of having gone through this process? A shift in perspective, a letting go of an old role or belief, taking up a new approach or behavior.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a constultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc which is a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers (provider #0270). She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories -with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds. For more information about future storytelling and Applied Improvisation workshops email bookings@lifestage.org.