The healing power of stories

What we can learn from a hospital storyteller

As the Centre for Therapeutic Storywriting, we are well aware of the power of story to move us towards change and healing. While we have a focus on the creation and co-creation of stories, and the support for literacy that comes with writing stories down, the spoken word – oral storytelling – also has a powerful impact on us.

Research published in 2021 (PNAS) found that storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalised children admitted to an intensive care unit.

The study reported that, “compared with an active control condition [solving riddles that also involved social interaction but lacked the immersive narrative aspect], one storytelling session with hospitalised children leads to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task.” There is a physiological and psychological impact. The study continues, “These important clinical implications affirm storytelling as a low-cost and humanized intervention that can improve the well-being of hospitalised children.”   

Michael O’Leary is a storyteller and author with extensive experience of storytelling in hospitals including Royal Devon and Exeter, Southampton General, and the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske (Truro). While Covid protections have meant his work as a hospital storyteller has been limited recently, he has seen tangible benefits for the children he has worked with in the past. He explained, “I go in briefly and I disappear again. Storytelling offers human contact that is focused on the child without dealing with the potentially traumatic issues associated with ill health.”

Telling stories in hospitals can mean being around when children and their families are confronting traumatic news. “I push my book trolley around the hospital,” Michael said, “and distribute books to children. I once came across a huddle of doctors who had just given a diagnosis of cancer to a boy. I had a conversation with him about what books he likes, and we chatted about non-fiction and science before I told him a story. For the time that I was with him, the focus was away from cancer.

“I met this boy again a few months later, again at a hideous time for him. He’d had a recurrence and had to go to Bristol. I told him the story of the Sleeping Warriors Under the Hill. It is a story of patterns and shapes that allows us to relax within something. This is where traditional stories exist. We can fall into these stories. They give us communication and connection.

“Choosing which story to tell is always instinctive rather than analytical,” explained Michael. “There is so much heavy adult stuff going on with these children so my job is to amuse them. Storytellers are entertainers.”   

Storytelling “may help alleviate the physical pain of hospitalized children on the day of the intervention.” Therapeutic Storywriting has also been shown to be effective in building emotional resilience.

While storywriting and storytelling are different entities, they are undoubtedly interlinked. Storytelling in hospitals has been shown to be a simple and inexpensive intervention which, as the research showed, “may help alleviate the physical pain of hospitalized children on the day of the intervention.” Therapeutic Storywriting has also been shown to be effective in building emotional resilience.

Stories help us to connect with each other, and with our world. They can help us to make sense and meaning and to make links between past and present. As Michael explains, they can help us to “be” in the patterns and shapes that stories exist in. To be immersed in the narrative allows us to process metaphors and exist for a while in the world of the imagination. “Narrative transportation” takes us to places we could not be without the narrative. As the research report states, “These narrative transportations and mental simulations can help reframe personal experiences, broaden perspectives, deepen emotional processing abilities, increase empathy, and regulate self-models and emotional experiences.”

It would be useful to see more research into the realms of both storytelling and storywriting and their capacities to support children in their growth, emotional development and wellbeing. In the meantime, the wealth of evidence we have so far supports both storywriting and storytelling; reason enough to keep using them with the children we support.