How can narrative healing techniques contribute to raising consciousness?

Journal of Psychiatry Reform vol. 11 #4, April 2024


 

Caroline Giroux, MD, FRCPC

Author information:

Professor of Psychiatry, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]


Background   

Writing one’s narrative can be liberating. Spreading ink on paper is a way to reclaim one’s voice. It helps us deconstruct a painful event and try to make sense of it. Viktor Frankl [1] saw finding meaning in life as a motivational force and he developed logotherapy. Narrating helps to develop self-awareness, discover deep wisdom, and gain a broader perspective by putting stressful situations into context, leading to a more constructive reframing and sense of wholeness. More specifically, handwriting (like journaling or gratitude list) forces us to slow down, pause, reflect and therefore practice mindfulness. Written self-expression often generates many health benefits. Pennebaker [2] has found that expressive writing reduced anxiety and depression, resulted in better immune function, lower pain, happier mood, and improved effectiveness in dealing with social life. Telling one’s own “fairytale” is an outlet for processing adversity. It also connects people. When we listen to someone’s story, we become part of that story. Studies are finding more objective measures emphasizing the benefit of expressive writing. At UC Davis, I have created various opportunities for programmatic development to implement a cost-effective and low-risk therapeutic modality that can integrate narratives of one’s journey through disease, trauma, grief, and recovery. 

Since 2015, to meet the demand for more therapeutic interventions, I have led various storytelling groups, including for the underserved at a county clinic, at the Behavioral Health Clinic where I have been offering the group “Reboot your Narrative” for survivors of trauma since 2019, and for residents and for physicians during wellness camaraderie groups.  

When one feels everything has been lost, there is still something to reclaim: the story. Writing one’s narrative helps us deconstruct its elements to try to make sense of it, develop self-awareness and discover its deep wisdom, or life’s teachings. Then, sharing it opens a dialogue as it is an opportunity for the flow of compassion to reinforce our spiritual nature through interconnectedness and the universal nature of suffering. It therefore breaks the sense of aloneness.  

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist, said, “In many psychiatric cases, the patient has a story that we don’t talk about and that, in general, nobody knows. For me, the true therapy only starts once the personal story is examined. The latter represents the patient’s secret, the one that broke him/her. At the same time, the story contains the key to the treatment. It is therefore indispensable that the doctor discovers it”. [3] 

In the context of Women’s History Month, I had the opportunity to discuss my contributions to medicine through a poster presentation. This article highlights some of the findings that were shared during the symposium and included in my poster [4]. The writing strategies and group process of creating and holding a safe space to encourage self-expression through the written word will be described and the main benefits (transcendence through the transformation of the traumatic experience, reclaiming one’s voice, empowerment, consciousness-raising and restoring wholeness) will be explored. 

 

Design and Methods  

The author and her team of co-facilitators worked in various venues that utilized narrativity and have selected prompts to kindle the writing with patients such as a gratitude list, writing a letter to your younger self, dream journaling, imagine your symptom talking to you, emotional writing [5], or patient letter [6]. “Reboot your Narrative”, a storytelling group for survivors of trauma created at UC Davis in 2019, has been used as an example. It is a discovery model, where judgment is suspended, with no “wrong” answers or mistakes, only lessons. The writers create a product that can restore their dignity and help them rediscover their creative strength through transformation of shame, therefore accessing resilience. It breaks the sense of aloneness as participants affirm and support each other during the sharing of the written content or the process of the exercise itself (was it challenging? eye-opening?). Four participants, all female, joined a variable number of sessions (up to 6) in 2024 and were asked to rate 13 indicators of recovery from 0 to 10 (zero being the absence of perceived effect and 10 being the optimal outcome).  

 

Results  

Based on subjective self-reporting, the top seven areas with the most significant improvement were [4]: 

 -Self-awareness (8.5)  

-Improved sleep (8.33)  

-Better mood regulation (8.25)  

-Wholeness (8.25)  

-Compassion (8.25)  

-Increased capacity for meditation (8.25)  

-Deeper connections (8.0)  

 

Based on the experience within the UC Davis Health “Reboot your Narrative” therapy group, all of the above have the potential to increase the level of consciousness of humanity, if we organize the actual (and projected, per dotted arrow) benefits of writing and their corresponding level in a Russian-doll fashion, with wholeness being at the core and leading to additional layers such as compassion, connections and expansion of consciousness: 

 

Wholeness => compassion  => interconnectedness —->  elevation of consciousness 

(individual) =>  (interpersonal)  =>  (global)         – – – – >   (transcendental)  

 

Discussion, Conclusions and Future Directions  

Evil forces can manage to knock you down by appropriating your self-confidence, your time, your energy, your identity, your bank account, your ideas for a project, but NO ONE can EVER appropriate YOUR story. It is inscribed in your whole being. Even when you think you have lost everything, that your life was shattered into a thousand pieces, you still have a magic wand (nib) and a mystical potion (ink) at your disposal to put it all back together. 

You can become an alchemist transforming dominant oppressive narratives by using a minimal cost, highly accessible ritual that is so versatile and can generate countless benefits, including, but not limited to: increased memory, reduced blood pressure, improved sleep, mindfulness, better mood regulation and better communication skills! 

Narrative approaches such as expressive writing, journaling, story-sharing and creating a gratitude list are cost-effective (often free), highly beneficial, low-risk, accessible and portable [7] healing methods. They also give a sense of purpose and foster the expansion of the whole person through the development of various dimensions (emotional, cognitive, physical, social and spiritual) and should therefore be a core aspect of holistic healing. The outcomes of group therapy using storytelling at UC Davis support the literature that found expressive writing can improve wellbeing and can positively impact the individual, then collective (interpersonal and global) levels, and ultimately the evolution of consciousness. While a group setting facilitates a sense of belonging [7], even writing solo about emotional experiences can connect the writer with the whole of humankind. If we can name an experience for ourselves, it means someone else has experienced it, for it led to creating or disseminating that language the survivor is able to use today. 

As we aim to expand existing practices in narrative medicine and expressive writing therapy, we should encourage the whole medical community to use narrativity for self-care and conduct studies to gather more quantifiable data and biomarkers. Other objective data such as blood pressure measurement pre- and post-writing session could be the next step when group sessions can be offered in person. In this particular survey, not all the participants who completed the survey had attended the same number of sessions. In the future, we could associate the result with the number they attended and determine if there is a dose-response relationship (that is to say, verifying the hypothesis that more practice comes with more sessions, and therefore more significant benefits). 

Stories we tell are a refuge in times of shaken identity, challenged values or uncertain dreams [8]. They create a compass when we lose all our cues. Viewing one’s biography helps gain perspective while building a bridge to past, culture and legacy, and might alter transgenerational patterns. Finally, storytelling can bring closure, transcendence of an event, self-compassion, self-transformation and healing. [8] 

Remember, your story and its riches (wisdom, beauty, humor…) can be a positive legacy to the world. As a doctor and writer, I continue to invite everyone to spill the word-tears of sorrow and trauma language to create bridges between the souls and reconnect with life’s inherent bliss and in the process, continue to help with the evolution of humanity and consciousness. 

 

References  

  1. Frankl VE. Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster; 1985. 
  2. Pennebaker JW, Seagal JD. Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of clinical psychology. 1999 Oct;55(10):1243-54
  3. Lenoir F. Jung, un voyage vers soi. Albin Michel; 2021 Nov 3
  4. Giroux C, Narrativity as part of the holistic, strength-based healing model, Basic Science Symposium, UC Davis, Davis, March 11th 2024
  5. DeMarco M. The ‘write’ way to heal, Psychology Today, November 12th 2023  
  6. Dolan E. Everyone is a storyteller, Sierra Sacramento Valley Medicine, January-February 2024
  7. Giroux C. A portable workshop: Embedding storytelling in psychiatry. The Journal of Psychiatry Reform. September 3rd 2020  
  8. Giroux C. Narrativity as a tool to understand suffering and promote healing. The Journal of Psychiatry Reform. July 2023 

 

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