The Healing Power of Stories

It's been one year since I wrote "The Parallel Universe Where My Brother Lives", the story of how I tried to move on after my brother's suicide. Re-reading the story now, I remember how painful it was for me to even think about my brother. But “Parallel Universe” doesn’t fit with who I am now. Writing, sharing, and talking about my story was tremendously healing. For this anniversary, I want to explore what it is about stories that can be so healing.

Stories validate strong emotions

Next to Normal  honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Next to Normal honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Most of us feel like something is wrong when we're experiencing strong emotions. This happens to me a lot when I get mad. I remember running late to work one day and getting pushed into a dirty New York City puddle of water. I was soaking wet and smelled like sewer. All morning long I felt like I was losing my mind – I was furious, couldn't stop replaying the situation in my mind, and was flooded with criticizing thoughts ("You're so stupid for letting this happen to you").

It wasn't until I talked to a friend that I started to feel better. "I would have been so pissed off if that happened to me!" Hearing that helped me calm down. My friend helped me understand that my feelings made sense given the situation. The more she validated my feelings, the more comfortable I felt.

Validation is one of the main reasons why stories can be healing. By introducing characters who are experiencing similar situations, stories can make us feel less alone and make it easier to talk about what we're thinking and feeling. That's why coming of age films like The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are so important – they validate the experience of being a teenager at a time when so much of the world can seem invalidating. It's also a big part of the psychology of cult TV shows like FireflyBuffy, and Doctor Who

Watching Broadway's Next to Normal was deeply validating for me. The musical is about a mother's struggle with bipolar depression and the impact it has on her family. Not only is the music beautiful (check out "I Miss the Mountains") but seeing the family’s struggle to support their loved one captured much of what happened to my family after my brother’s diagnosis.

Stories challenge stigma

Done right, stories can also reduce stigma about mental health. Many still believe problems with mental health are caused by personal weaknesses, that individuals should feel ashamed for their struggles, and treatment should be kept secret. We know this stigma has no basis in reality. Problems like anxiety and depression are caused by many biological, psychological, and environmental factors and affect a wide variety of people from all backgrounds. Stories can challenge these stigmatic beliefs and speak to the reality of mental health.

Often, the most helpful stories are true accounts of mental illness. That's why I'm a big fan of Glenn Close's Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, which encourages people to share their personal stories and start a dialogue about mental health.  

Films such as A Beautiful Mind and books like The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing have also done a lot to tell the story of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I also love what Temple Grandin has to say about autism and why the world needs all kinds of minds.

Reading Willy Linthout’s graphic memoir Years of the Elephant, a story about a father's struggle to mourn his son's suicide, went a long way to challenge my stigma about suicide. I used to think “I should be able to cope with this” but Linthout’s story taught me that most people grieving from a suicide go through a complicated process that lasts for a very long time. The Live Through This project also made this think our culture might be ready for a conversation about suicide.

Stories demystify mental healthcare

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Because of stigma, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually happens in therapy. Stories about mental healthcare have the power to demystify treatment. The best example of this is Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles. Forney shows what it’s like to be diagnosed with bipolar depression, what treatment with a psychiatrist looks like, the role of medication, and how things outside of traditional mental healthcare can help recovery. Marbles is a masterpiece in the world of graphic memoirs and should be required reading for all therapists in training.

I also use stories to explain what I am doing in treatment. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I'm essentially a coach whose job it is to teach my patients new ways of coping with distressing feelings, intrusive thoughts, and challenging situations. Whenever I teach a patient a new skill, I link it to a story they're passionate about. Relaxation training becomes Jedi training, cognitive coping skills are linked to Harry Potter's patronus charm, and exposure therapy is grounded in Batman's origin story. That's what geek therapy means to me – using stories people love to make therapy more fun, relevant, and effective (for more on this topic listen to Geek Therapy's "How Comic Books Saved My Life" or read Dean Trippe's "Something Terrible" ).

Stories help us grow

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

So far, everything has focused on consuming stories. It turns out that creating your own story can also be very therapeutic.

Many scientists and clinicians believe that avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is the common problem among all mental health concerns. Avoidance works in the short term but as a long term strategy it just ends up intensifying problems. Therapists Giorgio Nardone and Paul Watzlawick summarize this nicely:

“Clinical experience has shown that, ironically, it is often the patient’s very attempt to solve the problem that, in fact, maintains it. The attempted solution becomes the true problem.”

The solution is to help people experience all emotions, both the positive and the negative. That's the basis behind a number of effective treatments like exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and the unified treatment for emotional disorders. Short-term focused writing about emotions can bring about many of the same effects. Psychologist James Pennebaker's research has shown that writing can reduce anxiety and depression while increasing immune functioning. Some therapies also integrate writing as a major part of treatment. Cognitive processing therapy, which is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, helps people get unstuck from their thoughts and develop meaning out of the events that have happened.

Just knowing that people can recover from traumatic experiences can make it possible for someone to start moving towards post-traumatic growth. Hearing stories about recovery from a loved one's suicide was key to my growth. My friend and colleague Melinda Moore shared her story with me, how recovery from her husband's suicide led her to become a psychologist who promotes suicide prevention. Hearing from her made me believe that I too could gain something from my loss.

Stories ignite social support

Following difficult emotional experiences, the single best predictor of recovery is how much support someone gets from their friends and family. That's what made my recovery so difficult – I didn't talk about my pain with anyone so I didn't get much social support. Of course people asked how I was doing but I ignored them because I wasn't ready to open up.

When I did finally share my story, I was overwhelmed by messages of support. It wasn't just people I knew, but also individuals I never met who went out of their way to let me know they wanted to help. To date, I've received over 3,000 messages in response to “Parallel Universe”. I save each one and re-read them on particularly tough nights.

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Sharing a story, regardless of the way in which you do it, has the potential to activate a support network. One of my favorite examples of this comes from 7-year-old Katie Goldman. Katie was repeatedly bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. Her mom wrote about the experience on her blog and asked for help. The story quickly spread across the internet. Here's how Katie's mom describes what happened next:

Katie is overjoyed by the comments coming in!!!  My sweet first grade daughter has been sitting with me at the computer, reading aloud all the wonderful, supportive notes from readers, and her face is shining...We are going to print the comments out and make a book for her to read whenever she feels the need. Today she wore a Star Wars shirt to school and said to me, "Tell the people about it!!!!" This is really restoring her self confidence. She did a jaunty little pirouette in her Star Wars shirt before school.

The future of "Parallel Universe"

The stories we develop about ourselves shape our behavior, filter our memories, and inform our decisions about the future. My story is now forever linked with "Parallel Universe". Every month it's the most widely read article on Brain Knows Better and it’s what I’m most known for outside of my professional work.

Like other survivors of suicide, a part of my life is now dedicated to promoting suicide prevention and helping others who are experiencing complicated grief. That’s why I’m announcing a new project that will turn my story (Growing Up Trekkie, Parallel Universe, Most Honest Year of My Life) into a graphic memoir. I hope to share this new story with you in one year’s time at the third anniversary of “Parallel Universe”.

This was written in honor of Mental Health Month and the American Psychological Association's Mental Health Blog Day. To hear more about the healing power of stories, check out the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour mental health episode.

COSMOS tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of denying science

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey  is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

I've been anticipating COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey ever since it was teased at last year's San Diego Comic Con. Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a big part of my childhood and, along with Star Trek, it made me believe that science would create a better future for humanity. Knowing that COSMOS was returning in one of the biggest television rollouts of all time with the coolest modern scientific communicator (Neil deGrasse Tyson) made me a very happy nerd.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on  COSMOS .

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on COSMOS.

The first episode explains Earth's position in the universe and introduces the cosmic calendar to a whole new generation of people. Both had the effect of making me feel impossibly small & completely inspired. What was unexpected was the story of Giordano Bruno, a man who argued that the Earth orbits the Sun in an era when most believed the Earth was the center of the universe. Bruno died for his beliefs and in telling this story COSMOS makes a clear case for the scientific method of questioning everything. The episode tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of why people deny science.

Stories are persuasive

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

What made COSMOS so effective is Tyson's mastery of storytelling. He's been doing this for years at the Hayden Planetarium, on Capitol Hill, and across television networks (probably because he was inspired to follow Sagan’s example). Tyson easily translates complex ideas into straightforward language that gets people excited about understanding space. Most scientists can't do this and have a hard time sharing their ideas with people who aren’t in their field. Check out Tyson at his best in the "We Stopped Dreaming" speech.   

Stories aren't just entertaining. They’re an essential part of our psychology. The brain creates a story of who we are based upon the experiences we’ve had. These stories are simplified versions of reality (cognitive biases filter much of what happens to us). We're also biased to remember supernatural things like singing frogs (remembering things that are unusual helps us stay alive). But regardless of accuracy, stories are important because they have a huge impact on how we think, act, and feel.

The key stories from the first episode of COSMOS include:

  1. The Earth is a tiny part of a vast universe.
  2. Humanity didn't always believe this and people like Giordano Bruno were killed for asking too many questions.
  3. Humanity has existed for a very small amount of time compared to the rest of the universe.

Each of these stories is backed by science, with the exception of Bruno's story. COSMOS fails to explain why people rejected Bruno’s ideas and why many continue to deny modern day scientific truths (like climate change).

We attack information that conflicts with our stories

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

The best explanation for why people deny science comes from Leon Festinger's study of "The Seekers". Festinger infiltrated a cult led by Marian Keech who claimed to be receiving messages from aliens telling her the world would end on December 21st, 1954. Keech also claimed that she, along with her followers, would be saved at midnight prior to the end of the world. Her devotees left their jobs and stayed with Keech for the week leading up to the 21st. Midnight came and went – nothing happened. Instead of coming up with a rational explanation for why they weren’t beamed up by aliens, the seekers believed that God was so impressed with their prayers that he saved the world.

Festinger tested this experience in the lab and developed cognitive dissonance theory. Basically, we try to be true to the stories we tell ourselves. When there's a clash between our beliefs and new information (The Earth is the center of the universe but this guy is saying the Earth moves around the Sun), we unconsciously find information that fits our personal stories and end the conflict (He’s a crazy heretic). Cognitive dissonance is another part of the psychological immune system that keeps us feeling good about ourselves and the choices we make. Chris Mooney summarizes it nicely:

…our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts...That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment…We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

The brain attacks information that might challenge our beliefs the same way antibodies fight viruses. We unconsciously morph new information to fit in with existing stories (Sure, smoking isn’t healthy, but I don’t smoke that often and when I do they’re lights). Research has also shown that the harder you try to change someone’s perspective on an emotional topic, the stronger their existing point of view becomes. That's why debates on abortion don’t go anywhere and just make people mad.

How do we get around the problem of cognitive dissonance? New information has to be communicated in a way that fits in with someone’s existing stories. That's one of the reasons why many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the big bang – it’s consistent with many religious stories about genesis and creation. It’s also why some people of faith have a hard time with evolution – the cosmic calendar doesn’t align with many religious texts.

COSMOS  doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS, a big budget primetime miniseries that looks more like a science fiction blockbuster than a science documentary, is perfectly positioned to get around the barriers of cognitive dissonance because it tells a cool story. I’m bummed it didn’t explain why people rejected Bruno’s convictions, but I believe it will inspire a new generation to love science.

Rating: 9/10

To learn more about the science of science communication, check out Kyle Hill’s article at Discover Magazine