“The most amazing thing happened this morning…”
Who can ignore a conversation that starts like this? Who can resist the promise of learning something new or surprising? Who doesn’t want a break from the daily grind for a little dramatic tension or challenge?
We all love a great story!
Stories aren’t just for Oscar-winning movies or best-selling novels. They’ve been at the heart of human communication from the beginning. Before Snapchat, email, or snail mail, our survival depended on remembering the stories told around the community fire.
And now, researchers are discovering that storytelling can be transformative for personal health.
What makes a story so powerful?
Sometimes, all we need are the facts. “Take this pill twice a day.” Or, “Stretch your hamstrings to ease lower back pain.”
But when it comes to a deeper kind of learning, the kind that changes behavior or gets us started in a new direction, we need something more engaging. We need characters, a plot, a challenge to overcome, and a resolution. We need something we can relate to.
When we learn a fact, only the language processing areas of the brain are activated.1 And that’s important, but so much more happens to our brains when we learn through a story. Here’s just a sampling of what happens when we’re exposed to even the simplest of stories:
You can feel it: A frightening story makes your heart race. A sad story can bring you close to tears. These complex and integrated brain responses inspire deep connection, empathy with others, and memorable learnings.1
In practice, the results can be remarkable. Here are four examples of how researchers are applying storytelling to inspire positive actions and healthier habits:
A father-son struggle with cancer inspires generosity
A team at Claremont Graduate University wondered how different approaches to storytelling might affect people’s likelihood to donate to a charity. So, they shared a dramatic and moving film about a father and son struggling with cancer.3
Researchers then monitored changing levels of oxytocin what scientists call the “love hormone” in each participant. Oxytocin spiked in almost all of the viewers. And, most of them donated a portion of their earnings from the experiment to nonprofits.
A separate research group watched a much simpler video of the father and son visiting a zoo with far less of the character, plot, conflict, and resolution of a good story. Viewers had no spike in oxytocin. And they donated far less of their earnings to charity. In fact, the researchers found that the more cortisol and oxytocin released, the more likely participants were to make charitable donations.
Stories of “people like me” help drive better blood pressure control
The setting: a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.
Both groups of patients have difficulty controlling their blood pressure. One group of patients views a series of videos of similar patients sharing their own trials and successes. Another group of patients receives videos on more generic and less-personal topics like “dealing with stress.”
The results: The group exposed to the drama of personal stories had better blood pressure at the end of the study. In fact, the participants whose blood pressure was least controlled at the start achieved the strongest results. Access to personal stories helped them improve their numbers as effectively as adding more medications. 4
3. What happens when you explore your own story…
…from the privacy of your own room, pen and notebook in hand? That’s the thinking behind “expressive writing,” an approach to helping people process complex life experiences from adjusting to college to living with cancer.
Lights, camera, action: Multimedia adds power to a story
There’s telling a story, and then there’s creating it. Health researchers have begun studying “digital storytelling,” a process where people living with health challenges use video, music, images, and their own voices to create, share, and learn from their stories.8
Participants describe the process as powerful, deeply personal, and relevant. Most importantly, they find renewed motivation for problem-solving. The experience of managing the ups and downs of chronic conditions like diabetes come to life through their stories.9
Once you start “hearing” stories, their power becomes irresistible. How many have you heard already today? How many stories have you shared? Where could you solve a problem right now by passing along the right story at just the right moment?
Whether you’re a teller or a listener, there’s health-enhancing power in just the right story.
1 Keene, K. Et al. The power of stories: Enriching program research and reporting. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2016;Report #2016-32a.
2Sundin, A. et al. Rethinking communication: integrating storytelling for increased stakeholder engagement in environmental evidence synthesis. Environmental Evidence. 2018;7:6.
3Zak, P. How stories change the brain. Greater Good Magazine. Dec 17, 2013. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain. Accessed March 13, 2018.
4Thomas K. Houston, et al. Culturally appropriate storytelling to improve blood pressure: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2011;154:77–84.
5American Psychological Association. Open up! Writing about trauma reduces stress, aids immunity. https://www.apa.org/research/action/writing. Accessed March 26, 2019.
6Milbury, K et. al. Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for patients with renal cell carcinoma. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 32:663-670.
7Bruce, A, et al. Can writing and storytelling foster self-care? A Qualitative Inquiry into facilitated dinners. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing 2018;20(6):554–560.
8Haigh, C. Tell me a story — a conceptual exploration of storytelling in healthcare education. Nurse Education Today. 2011;31:408–411.
9Njeru, N et al. Stories for change: development of a diabetes digital storytelling intervention for refugees and immigrants to Minnesota using qualitative methods. Public Health 2015;15:1311.
Medicine isn’t perfect. For every breakthrough that cures a disease (or makes it easier to live with one) there are many more treatments that only help a little. And there are many more that may have no effect or that may actually cause a particular person more harm than good. So, it’s important to approach any decision that affects your health, or the health of someone you love, with eyes wide open.
Ever wondered whether it’s better to see the glass as half empty or half full? There’s a growing body of research that has your answer...
There is no doubt that prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can come with tons of confusing directions, warnings, disclaimers, and information on the paperwork. So, we’re digging into what some of these often-confusing terms or sections of a label mean. Because we believe, the more you know about your medications, the more you can make sure they are working for you.
The role of the supplement is just that – to supplement the levels of a nutrient already found in your body. Some supplements are more beneficial than others, and some are absorbed better than others. Today we’ll walk through what you need to know about supplements so that you can have an informed conversation with your doctor about whether or not they’re right for you.
Have you ever wondered how you can swallow different pills meant for different things and they can all do their job? Prescriptions. Over-the-counter medicines. Dietary supplements. Botanicals. They all have their jobs–and they often do them well. But how do they know where to go? Let’s walk through the end to end process of how drugs get into your body and get to the site that needs them.
Whether you are a rise and grind kind of person or a late night gym rat, you may be positive that your time of day is the best time of day to work out. Or maybe you’re wondering if switching your workout routine would give you better results. So, let’s dive into the question: What’s the best time of day to work out?