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Storytelling Is Good for Us and Our Bodies

Sharing stories lowers stress and increases empathy.

Key points

  • Sharing family stories helps young adults build strong identities and fosters a sense of generativity and integrity as people age.
  • Listening to someone tell a story increases oxytocin, a hormone related to bonding and empathy, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Stories can also increase empathy by helping people simulate living different lives and see the world through different lenses.

Last night, I spent a couple of hours with my pandemically inspired social group, Women and Whine. We are a group of four women who work together and have had intersecting friendships, some new and some old, with each other over the years. When we entered lockdown over a year ago, we thought it would be good to get together over Zoom every other week just to “whine” – after all, we knew we would all need to complain, to vent, and to mourn together over the losses we would experience. We had no idea that the lockdown would last as long as it did or of the various losses and challenges each of us would face as time wore on, but we found solace in our meetings every other week.

As the year progressed, our friendships deepened as we moved from online to in-person, and from discussing the events of our days to the events of our lives. We started sharing stories of our childhoods, of our college days, of our relationships and our careers. We shared ourselves and, indeed, we took solace and comfort in this. And we laughed. A lot!

My research in the Family Narratives Lab focuses on the importance of family stories, of parents and children sharing stories of themselves across the generations, and how these stories build strong identities for adolescents and young adults, and a sense of generativity and integrity as we age. But stories we share with friends are also important. Stories we share with friends help us understand the world in very different ways, from very different perspectives. Stories I share with my sister help me understand my own childhood experiences better. Stories I share with my friends help me see that my experiences are not universal and help me understand and empathize with others. Stories connect us as a human family.

Storytelling Increases Oxytocin and Lowers Cortisol

We all understand this from our own experiences sharing stories, but new research by Brockingham and colleagues shows just how deep these human connections through stories run. They asked whether storytelling could actually modulate physiological responses to stress for children in the ICU as compared to a control group who engaged in riddle games for the same amount of time. Children who listened to someone telling stories for just 30 minutes showed decreased cortisol responses; cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress and higher cortisol is related to increased bodily and psychological distress. More striking, these children showed a marked increase in oxytocin, a hormone that is related to human bonding. Higher levels of oxytocin are related to greater feelings of love and empathy. And these increases in oxytocin and decreases in cortisol were also related to lower ratings of pain and higher levels of positive emotion about feeling better and getting better. Stories helped these children heal.

What is it about stories that has this beneficial effect? Social psychologists Mar and Oatley argue that stories, especially fictional stories, transport us into different worlds, into the minds of characters coping with unknown and unexpected human challenges and interactions. In this way, stories help us simulate living different kinds of lives and seeing the world through different lenses. When we tell our own story, we tell it from our perspective, how we see the world — although our listeners sometimes challenge our perspectives and help us see ourselves in new ways, as research by developmental psychologist Monisha Pasupathi and her colleagues at the University of Utah have so beautifully illustrated.

When we listen to others’ stories, we enter their worlds and see things through their eyes. This is one of the reasons that family stories are so powerful for young people, because they are hearing about the world through the eyes of parents and grandparents, family members who have had different experiences but are still the critical figures with whom adolescents identify. When we identify strongly with someone, their stories are more immediately connected to our own sense of self. As we get older and our experiences widen, so does our need to share stories more widely, both to initiate new relationships and to deepen existing ones. Through shared stories, we create shared worlds.

So, my Women and Whine. Over the course of this pandemic year, we entered new worlds through each other's stories. We laughed together and we cried together. We complained and we celebrated. And we did all this through stories. As the new research suggests, this shared storytelling may have lowered our cortisol and raised our oxytocin; it helped us manage our stress and increase our empathy and caring for others. Our bodies and our stories are linked. In a very real sense, we are the stories we tell and the stories we hear.

References

Brockington, G., Moreira, A. P. G., Buso, M. S., da Silva, S. G., Altszyler, E., Fischer, R., & Moll, J. (2021). Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(22).Brockington, G., Moreira, A. P. G., Buso, M. S., da Silva, S. G., Altszyler, E., Fischer, R., & Moll, J. (2021). Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(22).Brockington, G., Moreira, A. P. G., Buso, M. S., da Silva, S. G., Altszyler, E., Fischer, R., & Moll, J. (2021). Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(22).

Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(3), 173-192.

Pasupathi, M., & Billitteri, J. (2015). Being and becoming through being heard: Listener effects on stories and selves. International Journal of Listening, 29(2), 67-84.

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