Telling stories about our pain, problems, and hard-won perspective can be a cathartic release, a testament to overcoming adversity, and a gift to the listener, all at once. Research shows that connection to other people through shared experience, even if we do not know them well, strengthens internal psychological resilience while building social bonds. “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails,” stated Dean Becker, the president and CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company that develops and delivers programs about resilience training, in an interview for Harvard Business Review. “That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”
The links between story and resilience-building is part psychology, part neurobiology. According to another Harvard Business Review article whichdetails some of the science involved, “Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus.” The fun, engaging parts of a story “release oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”
A memory is elevated into a story through a creative process that requires self-reflection, through taking stock of ourselves and our circumstances from a wide lens. Resilience, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors, grows through this process. To recognize what we were up against — the emotions, the struggle, what we have lost and what we have learned —is one level of resilience. To communicate that to others effectively can be transformative to our sense of self. The language we use to describe an experience becomes the truth we carry around about it. “Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow,” writes Maria Konnikova in “How People Learn To Become Resilient” in The New Yorker. “Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.”
A study published in the journal Family Process looked at the role of stories to shape our sense of self, based on the idea that “narratives create meaning and provide perspective on our past and on our lives and thus are clearly related to sense of self.” The study supported the premise that family narratives “provide understanding, evaluation, and perspective on the events of our lives. Through narrative interactions about the shared past, parents help shape children’s understanding of who they were, who they are now, and presumably who they will be in the future, both as individuals and as members of the family. Thus, although family communication and interaction in other contexts and settings is clearly important, the role of family narratives may be particularly critical for children’s developing sense of self.”
Facebook COO Sheryl Samberg, who cast a wide net in her search for resources to help her young children face the long-term impact of life-changing loss after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death, learned from a number of experts the significance of stories to well-being, even if they are not happy ones. “When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history — where their grandparents grew up, what their parents’ childhoods were like — they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of mattering and belonging.” In her New York Times piece “How To Build Resilient Kids, Even After A Loss” she shares the encouraging news that “resilience — which leads to better health, greater happiness and more success — isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.”
Stories — both sharing our perception of experiences and listening to those of others — are at the heart of working this muscle, and not just for kids. Through story, we can come to terms with, and make meaning of what happened and must be faced, and this applies to people of any age. “Science has proven that one of the major ways the brain operates is by taking facts and organizing them into a story. Once created, that story (a person’s perception of reality) then allows that person to sort reality to conform to it. Consequently, the first building block of a person’s resilience is crafting a meaningful story and then supporting it with facts,” writes Forbes Women’s Media writer Nancy F. Clark in “How To Develop Resilience And Make Yourself The Hero Of Your Own Story” on Forbes.com.
Listening to others’ stories can also enrich appreciation of perseverance through a long struggle against obstacles and the perspective-taking that often comes from examining it in detail, also traits linked to resilience. Neuroscientist Paul Zak explains that reading or listening to stories — this includes good fiction that details the emotional lives of others as well as true accounts of personal experiences — triggers a release of oxytocin, the hormone associated with empathy, trust and relationship-building. This brain activity strengthens social bonds and the psychologically powerful sense of being heard and understood by others.