Stories as Medicine: How Writing Keeps Bodies Going

Last week, a block away from our offices in Cincinnati, a crowd of people heading into work or out on a coffee break were traumatized by an active shooter. Like a lot of people, we feel a bit helpless and we are grieved for those who lost their lives in this senseless act. We are also grieved for all the people who now are haunted by their memory of such an awful morning. In the search for answers about why this story keeps repeating in places all over America, we also want to find some ways to heal in the aftermath. It turns out stories might help.

As last Thursday went on, more and more people found a way to tell their piece of the story. For people who work downtown, they told their story just to let their loved ones know if they were safe, or on lockdown, or how the morning went for them. A lot of people on the periphery of the violence felt compelled to talk to each other in coffee shops, on street corners, at happy hour bars. We do this for a lot of reasons and one of them might be for our own survival.

In their book, Opening Up by Writing It Down, James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth make the case for stories as medicine. They record their findings from a series of studies on the benefits of “expressive writing.” Their studies invite people to commit to a practice of regularly writing down their stories. They measure the effects of this practice on the body over and against the health of people writing non-narrative material for the same amount of time.

To sum up years of their life’s work, they discovered that the practice of writing out stories decreased the participants’ visits to student clinics and doctors. They repeatedly saw the benefits of the practice in managing trauma and stress.

While the book mostly makes the case for storytelling’s effectiveness in promoting good health, they only spend minimal time drawing out the reasons why this might be. There’s something in their work about how stories give meaning and structure to suffering, how making those connections helps people cope and thrive. There’s some evidence for the value of acknowledging and releasing wounds. Somehow the act of sitting down and writing out their stories works like a good medicine, a balm for bodies.

Could shared stories, stories told and heard across tables, and Fountain Square, provide healing after last week?

Could our individual and collective trauma find a place to live outside of us, on the page or in our art and work?

Could the regular practice of organizing our lives into narratives relieve the stress, address the wounds, and provide meaning for companies and entire cities?

We hope so.