Is Storytelling the New Miracle Drug?

Our bodies are our stories.
— Lewis Mehl-Madrona

It is a very challenging time to be a healer, and an even more challenging time to seek healing. Caregivers are profoundly overworked and under-supported, and a huge proportion of our population is without access to the quality and degree of healthcare they need. Doctors, on average, have less than 15 minutes to spend with a patient and, after a rapid-fire round of generic “yes” or “no” questions, are tasked with coming up with a diagnosis. In turn, the majority of patients have little opportunity (or ability) to share stories with their doctors—stories that could save their lives.

Our country’s medical system is in crisis. But there is hope.

Alongside these dismal findings, a mindfulness movement is gaining an important following. Yoga and meditation communities are growing exponentially: The number of yoga practitioners in the United States alone is currently more than 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012. There is also an exciting new field within mindfulness called narrative medicine, which is uniquely positioned to offer a lasting solution—and an alternative form of treatment that blends mindful, literary, artistic, and spiritual solutions to treating illness. This is a timeless practice that cannot be separated from a physical and spiritual experience.

The field of narrative medicine was originated in 2000 by Rita Charon, MD, PhD, founder and executive director of the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University, where a trailblazing program employs the use of narrative in clinical care. Since then, narrative medicine has become a vast and growing field, recognized in major institutions and clinical practices, notably Visible Ink, Judith Kelman’s award-winning writing program at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and the groundbreaking work of Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, author of Narrative Medicine. It’s also used as a therapeutic and literary technique by caregiving organizations and mindfulness publications internationally.

Although newly adopted by Western practitioners, narrative medicine is not a modern concept. Since antiquity, the ministry of storytelling and compassionate listening has been a cornerstone of medicine. As Lisa B. Nelson, MD, Director of Medical Education at Kripalu, reflects, “Hippocrates said, ‘It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.’ More than two thousand years later, this remains true. Narrative medicine acknowledges that greater healing is possible when the full human story, of which illness is only a part, is able to be articulated, understood, and integrated.”

My own reckoning with the power of storytelling came in 2014, after more than a decade of experience working with powerful voices as a book publicist. The narratives of award-winning authors I’ve known, from Bill Clinton and Dani Shapiro to Kay Redfield Jamison and Oliver Sacks, showed me that stories have the power to change and improve lives. And yet, none of this could have prepared me for the ultimate wake-up call: a story doctors told me in the form of a thyroid cancer diagnosis. Surrounded by doctors barking out frightening black-and-white scenarios about my future, I shut down completely. I was unable to pause to ask the important questions or consider the answers. Instead, I panicked  and let fear drive my decisions. In the months that followed, I underwent an unnecessary surgery, which led me to experience anxiety and depression brought on by trauma. I had lost my voice and a sense of control over my own life’s story.

As it turned out, the story was a misdiagnosis, and I’m not unique in this experience. On average, 20 to 30 percent of patients are misdiagnosed. And, in my case, the unnecessary treatment ended up being harmful. In fact, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States. My experience was also proof of another illuminating discovery: that what a patient believes to be true and their chances of survival are intrinsically connected. Alastair Cunningham of the University of Toronto showed that the best predictor of how long a patient lives in the presence of metastatic cancer is how long the person thinks they will live. Cunningham’s studies point to the power of the stories we tell ourselves about our own health. I experienced this firsthand; when I began to believe (incorrectly) that my life was limited, I became sick with new ailments.  

After surgery, when I was told I was healed, I felt sicker than ever. I intuitively knew that something wasn’t working and that I needed something other than what my doctors were offering to get back in tune with my body, my breath, and my voice. I needed a holistic experience in order to heal. So I made radical changes to my lifestyle. I completed 750 hours of yoga teacher training, including studying with restorative yoga master Jillian Pransky. I studied meditation at the Shambhala Center with Ethan Nichtern, and participated in meditation and writing workshops with Dani Shapiro. Through these masters, I learned that if I moved away from mind chatter and sank into my body and breath, I would begin to hear a whisper, a voice that would honestly tell me what was going on inside. I also learned that I needed to be in a community of people who believed I would heal and set powerful examples on their own healing paths.

I came to understand that storytelling heals in different stages:

  1. The capacity to become quiet and listen to myself
  2. The ability to write my story
  3. Expressing my story to someone else
  4. Feeling heard and understood by a person I trusted who believed that I would heal.

Prominent research over the past two decades has proved how writing heals. University of Texas scholar James W. Pennebaker has been conducting extensive studies on the impact of expressive-writing exercises on patients across the spectrum of illness, which corroborates the evidence found by spiritual leaders who have promoted this type of personal writing for decades. Pennebaker’s studies prove that writing does wonders for mood elevation and lowering blood pressure, in addition to alleviating insomnia, depression, and anxiety. It has also been shown to increase employment rates for recently incarcerated individuals, help cancer victims respond to treatment, and improve self-esteem and offer meaningful support and practical skills for homeless women.

Judith Hannan, author of The Write Prescription, says, “Writing gives you the distance you need to write about even the hardest moments; reading what you have written unveils and helps you process the emotions that those moments gave rise to. Having your stories heard, and hearing the stories of others, cements the connections between communities, removes the isolation that can occur when we are ill or broken in some way.”

Storytelling offers tremendous opportunity for positive change and healing, as I learned when I was offered a story with an ending I could not accept.

When you express your story, you become a healing agent for yourself and others.
—Jillian Pransky

At a time when the healthcare debate is miring our country in life-threatening red tape, leaving millions without access to basic care, narrative medicine can serve as a rallying cry for all varieties of artists, writers, and caregivers to band together. A regular writing practice, coupled with tools for practicing compassionate listening, is highly effective medicine that can radically support the path of healing.  

Lisa Weinert has been a book publicist and editor for 15 years. After her life-changing medical scare, she began a personal journey studying yoga, creative writing, and meditation that led her to the field of narrative medicine in search of her own voice and healing path. She now collaborates with authors and publishers on publishing and PR campaigns and is teaching a publishing course at Wesleyan University for the spring 2017 semester. She also offers StoryFlow workshops, which pair yoga and writing, throughout the year. She is the cocreator and moderator of the annual Narrative Medicine program at Kripalu, July 9–14, an immersion that brings together doctors, yogis, literary writers, and spiritual leaders.

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