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How can story telling help your mental health?

Why do we love stories? What is it about them that makes them so popular?

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years — probably since we learnt to speak. But why?

People tell stories for many different reasons. They help us remember or make sense of things; they affirm or remind us of who we are; or they simply help pass the time.

Before writing became widespread, story telling was a recognised way to stay informed. In ancient times there were even specialist story tellers whose role it was to keep us updated. In Europe they were known as bards while in West Africa they were called griots.

Nowadays, we no longer rely on professional story tellers. And yet, we love a good yarn. In fact, if someone is good at it we say “she’s got some great stories” or “he’s a great story teller”.

Stories are everywhere: at the annual family get-together, at the work function for the retiring co-worker, and as a conversation starter directed at couples who are asked “how did you two meet?”


Why we love stories

Ever noticed how someone delivering a really good speech or talk often starts with a story? Whether it makes the audience laugh, cry or rage, a solid story makes us pay attention.

Stories are basically about people. Yes, that may sound obvious, but what that actually means is that a good story is about something we can relate to or identify with. Identifying with a story can take many forms, such as the following…


We can often relate to someone or even see ourselves in a good story

People seeking to improve their mental health and wellbeing often report feeling much better after sharing their experiences with understanding peers. After sharing or listening, it’s common for people to say that they feel less like outsiders, were “not the only one” or otherwise realised that there are others in similar situation.

This is one of the reasons why support groups exist for a huge variety of conditions and chronic illnesses, from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to social anxiety, depression, domestic violence, diabetes, psychosis, cancer, and much more.

Recounting lived experiences — what many would call story telling — is often an integral part of a support network because its benefits are widely recognised.


Stories can be about values and qualities we admire

Story telling can be about sharing values and qualities of people we admire.

The word “inspiring” often gets mentioned when we hear of people living life to the fullest despite great challenges (or even hardship), be it depression, socio-economic disadvantage, alcoholism, disability, sickness or something else.

We love stories of people overcoming great adversity. Indeed, many of the oldest stories in existence are about mythical heroes who go on long journeys and conquer obstacles.

Stories like this have survived for so long because we like what they represent. It’s really not so different today, whether it’s a tale about a historical figure, family member, friend, co-worker, innovator or ancestor. After all, who doesn’t love a great story about kindness, heroism or just being the underdog?


Stories can be about history, culture and morals

A story can bring us closer to our history and culture, or help us see the right and moral way of overcoming problems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture goes back thousands of generations while the culture of every migrant to Australia started at some point over the last 230 years.

Identity is important. It’s intrinsically tied to family or cultural history. Stories have always been a traditional way of remaining close to these things.


Stories can also be just about fun

Not all stories are meant to have a profound meaning or carry a serious life lesson. Often stories are told simply because they’re funny or entertaining. It happens everywhere, be it on social media, at work or at catch-ups.

It was almost certainly like that thousands of years ago (except for the social media part), and it will be like that in the future.


Do stories help wellbeing and mental health?

We know what we love about stories. But what can they actually do for us? Here are just some of the many ways in which telling or hearing a story can help.


Others can help by hearing your story

As mentioned, the simple realisation for many people that they are “not alone” can make a big difference to how they manage their mental health.

As one former anxiety sufferer-turned mental health advocate said: “The very simple act of communing and connecting with other people who ‘go there’ can create this profound shift in how you see yourself.”


The stories of others can help you

Continuing with the above theme, story telling and sharing lived experiences can help others too. An example is this series of candid video interviews with war veterans.

They share their stories and how they dealt with mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, PTSD and anger management. In each instance, they explain how talking about mental health helped improve their situation. They are, in every sense, sharing lived experiences.

Hearing from someone who has “walked in their shoes” can have a powerful effect and it can show how getting help and support was effective.


Telling stories can build your confidence

Sharing or listening to lived experiences can help overcome discomfort, fear, shame or embarrassment, both for the speaker and the listener.

It might help overcome the reluctance of acknowledging (publicly, or even to ourselves) a condition or disorder. Finding the right environment in which to tell it could also make dealing with it feel “real” and help with “getting it out of your system”.

It could even help if you’re uncomfortable with public speaking.


Telling stories can normalise mental health condition and disorders

Another benefit of sharing lived experiences is how it can help normalise things like mental health disorders. The previously mentioned videos of veterans sharing their stories is an example of this. These recordings were created to help other Defence personnel by repeating the message that it’s ok to get help for depression, anxiety and PTSD.

These messages are publicly viewable so they are likely to be seen by people who also happen to not be veterans. Non-veterans probably have no reason to call the relevant phone number, however, the message is a reminder that mental health concerns are common. Making these messages publicly viewable reinforces that message, which often helps to reduce the stigma of a mental health concern .


Worried or concerned about something? We’re here to listen to your story. Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.