Harnessing the Power of Storytelling to Improve Your Mental Health

Dana Udall, Ph.D.

April 29, 2021

Chief Clinical Officer at Headspace Health with 20 years of helping individuals & groups make meaningful change. Working to level the playing field in mental health.

Harnessing the Power of Storytelling to Improve Your Mental Health

“We change because we hear stories, and because we tell them.”

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we here at Ginger are celebrating the healing power of storytelling. Often used in therapy, storytelling allows people to feel heard and validated, which in turn can reduce anxiety, normalize an experience, and help people accurately perceive their experiences. Meanwhile, other people’s stories can elicit empathy, help people see the world from a new perspective, provide hope, and reassure people that they’re not alone in their struggles.

Everyone has stories to share. So, how can you tell yours? Below are guidelines to get started and to help you overcome barriers that may stand in your way.

How can I get started telling stories that support my family’s mental health?

Of course, every family is different, and every family’s tolerance for emotion and deep conversation is different. Some families recount their days every night at dinner and keep things light, whereas others go deep, plumbing the depths of their experience or reminiscing about the past.

If you’d like to get to know your family on a deeper level, you can start by testing the waters: share something new about yourself, or ask your family members to tell you something new about them. There are also lots of good conversation starter games that allow families to get to know each other in a fun and non-threatening way. Remember that not everyone will want to share; some folks are more comfortable with the limelight than others, and that’s okay. What matters is that you’re spending time together and trying something new, which can be a great way to deepen trust and have fun — and ultimately lead to deeper sharing.

If you’re a parent, think about the potential impact of your story on your child, and make sure that you aim at the right developmental level. For example, it can be helpful for kids to hear that their parents have struggled, and that they’ve overcome challenges. This sort of role modeling can help build resilience. But your children likely don’t need to know details, particularly about events that might be overwhelming or disturbing to them.

How can I become more comfortable sharing my stories, especially ones about mental health?

Sharing stories about your mental health can be hard. If you have a story that you want to share, but don’t feel comfortable doing so, there are strategies you can use to get started. I often recommend writing stories down before sharing them. That process can allow you to discharge some of the emotion that may surround your stories, and can help you determine what to share, and what to keep private.

Using mindfulness while writing down stories can help, too, since it can create an opportunity to notice your body’s reactions, which can be a clue to your comfort level. If you notice that your breathing increases as you write about a particular part of your story, for example, you might pause and allow yourself to be curious about your reaction. What does it mean? Should you keep that story private, or maybe be extra thoughtful about how and when you choose to share it? Remember that you can tell your story without going into too much detail, which can be a great way to get support without overwhelming yourself or others.

What can I do if I want to share my story, but talking about mental health isn’t accepted in my culture?

Cultural norms regarding emotion, mental health, and seeking professional help vary widely. Some cultures discourage discussing these topics, believing that problems should be addressed only in private — if at all —avoid bringing shame on the family or adhere to cultural norms related to self-sufficiency or emotional regulation. Such cultural norms, which typically stem from a variety of historical, environmental, and other factors, are neither good nor bad. You may feel at odds with a belief you’ve been raised with, and as a result, you may actively choose to reject a cultural practice that doesn’t serve you. This can be a liberating process, or it can be a detrimental one, particularly if you don’t have support when you choose to find a new path.

If you’re considering sharing your story, and you’re uncomfortable doing so, a good first step is to identify people in your life who might be comfortable talking about mental health. It can also be helpful to test things out — sharing just a small bit of a story — before going into detail. It’s often wise to check in with people you’re planning to talk to in order to get their buy-in and give them permission to back away, if needed. Sometimes hearing the stories of others can be triggering or overwhelming, and can actually create more distance in a relationship. Ensuring that the person you’re wanting to talk with is comfortable, and that you’re clear about boundaries, is an important part in determining what, and with whom, to share.

What makes a good story when it comes to mental health?

As humans, we like to know we’re not alone, and witnessing the struggle in others reminds us of this. But, many folks have a hard time tolerating unhappy endings, which is why so many movies show people conquering adversity and triumphing over tragedy. Though these make for a happy viewing experience, they aren’t always realistic. Sometimes, our stories take a negative turn, and we don’t think we’ll come out the other side. Great stories help us see that pain is inevitable and that healing and hope are possible, even when a Hollywood ending doesn’t exist.

Starting this month, we’ll be sharing unique stories from artists, athletes, leaders, and others from around the world at www.ginger.com/chats. We invite you to follow along and share this resource with friends and loved ones as we seek to reduce mental health stigma, normalize getting help, and have a little fun along the way.