November 5, 2021

Storytelling Heals


When you think of the brain, what comes to mind?


Is "The Great Hallucinator" one of them?  Probably not!  But at the end of the day our brain's primary purpose may be that of chief storyteller.   


The only way to understand our world is through stories and our brains do a great job at processing over 11 million bits of information a second to create a world around us.  When functioning normally we are the center of that world, and dare we say the heroes of it.


In the healthcare field we typically meet clients when there has been a "change" in their story.  Something unexpected that has resulted in them losing control of the narratives they have created.  Maybe it is a trauma or injury, maybe it is pain, anxiety, depression, or any other negative emotion.  Whatever it may be, our clients typically seek our services when they cannot make sense of the apparent new world around them.


The reason they cannot make sense of this new information is because it was likely an unexpected change in their lives.  We deal with unexpected changes frequently: imagine yourself walking down the street and you hear a car backfire.  You know you are still safe and can use your senses to "correct" for the new information and carry on about your day.  Not so when it comes to negative emotions and experiences.


These negative experiences and feelings leave a mark on our nervous systems.  They are designed to teach us something new about ourselves or the world around us in an attempt to keep us safe.  This usually results in our Left Hemispheres (the "talky, motor planning and control side" of our brain) to create a new narrative thus inhibiting previously formed circuits, including our creative Right Hemispheres.


The longer the new narrative persists the more it becomes a part of our reality and a new story or world is formed.  This is a big key to understanding chronic pain when working with clients.  It is not only their tissues that need caring but their minds as well.


It is very rare that we will believe what we read, we sometimes believe what we hear, but we will always believe what we say.  In doing so words that we never associated with negative emotions or feelings such as tight, weak, stiff, become more connected to our narratives and continue to reinforce the negative emotions.


So what can we do?  Instead of using negative words and the same analogies to tell our story, substitute them with phrases like "I am working on it."  "I am doing my best."  "I still experience pain but I am encouraged about the future."  "I believe I can get better."


In the end we all love a happy story, we just need to do a better job at realizing we are our authors.


- Storr, Will. "The Science of StoryTelling", (2020). pp 1-55.
- Lowenstein, George. "The Psychology of Curiosity". The Psychological Bulletin, (1994). pp. 75-98.
- Bergen, Benjamin. "Louder Than Words" (2012) pp. 196-206.
- Kahneman, Daniel. "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (2011) pp. 50.

About the Author Dr. Joe LaVacca

Joe LaVacca is a Physical Therapist based out of New York City where he owns his own private practice; Strength in Motion Physical Therapy. Joe’s focus on communication, emotion, and education are the 3 primary tools he uses to build empowerment while teaching and with his patients. Joe is the lead educator for Fringe Inc, a company focused on building a community for human beings to support one another, while promoting and celebrating the very things that make us who we are.

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