Stories & Mental Health

I recently listened to a presentation by Professor Jon Adler. He is a professor at Olin College, leads the Health Story Collaborative, and researches the relationship between the stories we tell ourselves and our mental health.

In short: stories are essential. They color everything about how we view the world and how we view ourselves. And our stories are the central tool for processing our own experiences, for finding meaning, and choosing a path forward.

Professor Adler’s research identifies themes and structures in how people tell stories about their life. He finds that the stories people tell are predictive of their well-being. That is–when people experience a difficult event, how they tell the story of it, and how their narrative shifts over time, precedes positive changes in their mental health.

Our stories are central to our mental health.

His presentation outlined a few of the key themes:

Redemption vs. Contamination. Every story (and every life) has highs and lows. Narratives that run from low points to high points–that is, stories of redemption–are better.

Agency vs. Incapability. We all have things within our control and outside our control. Stories that focus on agency–on what the individual can control and what they did with those things, are better.

Communion vs. Isolation. Stories that emphasize communion, togetherness, and connection are better.

Autobiographical reasoning. In general, reflecting on how events fit with the broader picture of our lives is better–either through how current events reflect past themes, or how a new season of change has happened.

Structural Coherence. Stories that are detailed, coherent, and elaborate are better.

This list reflect my own experience. One of my last jobs in the military was supporting soldiers who had been through a traumatic event. The key tool to normalize a traumatic experience was storytelling. We listened to people tell their stories of an event, in their own words. We encouraged them to think about it in the context of the training they’d received and what would happen next. And we emphasized how they’d performed well–given what they could control and the situation they were placed in–and how their lessons would be used to help others. That set of actions subtly addresses all the themes in Professor Adler’s research.

The paper is here, and a shorter overview is here.

I hope these themes help you as you consider your own stories. Have a great day!

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