Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sharing Stories is Good For Your Health

Several nights ago we had family members over for dinner and sat around the table for over an hour after the plates had been cleared. We weren't talking politics, giving each other advice, or complaining about other family members. We were doing nothing more than sharing stories. Some of the stories were memories of our small town growing up, some were stories about friends that had passed in and out of our lives. Some of the stories were about challenges we have overcome and lessons we have learned. When the evening was over, I felt cleansed and calm. This morning, when I ran across an article in The New York Times about storytelling, my evening with my family made sense. It seems that our bodies actually have a positive, physical reaction to the act of storytelling. In her article titled, "Patient Stories May Improve Health," Pauline Chen writes:

The Annals of Internal Medicine has published the results of a provocative new trial examining the effects of storytelling on patients with high blood pressure. And it appears that at least for one group of patients, listening to personal narratives helped control high blood pressure as effectively as the addition of more medications.

Monitoring the blood pressure of nearly 300 African-American patients who lived in urban areas and had known hypertension, the researchers at three-month intervals gave half the patients videos of similar patients telling stories about their own experiences. The rest of the patients received videos of more generic and impersonal health announcements on topics like dealing with stress. While all the patients who received the storytelling DVD had better blood pressure control on average, those who started out with uncontrolled hypertension were able to achieve and maintain a drop as significant as it had been for patients in previous trials testing drug regimens.

Later in the article, lead author of the study and researcher Dr. Thomas K. Houston says this: “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives. That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behavior and improve health.”

Every culture in history, including our own, has had a way to pass along stories, whether through writing, pictures, orality, or song. Apparently, it is vital to a culture - and to individuals - to tell our stories. And it is good for our health as well. Our magazine is one way to tell and listen. I've discovered the value of sitting around a table and sharing stories as well. Sometimes I wonder if this is a lost art. We rarely have time to sit around a table and eat together, much less spend time telling stories after the dinner is finished. If storytelling is good for our health, what ways are you incorporating it into your life? I'd be interested to hear your comments.


  1. Stories, family history, memories (some I learned later had been substantially embellished for the sake of interest) – were all passed along to us while sitting around the family dinner table after Saturday night's supper. There I was seated along side my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandfather was a preacher so holding court at the head of the table came naturally. He took control of the room, control of the subject and control of our attention.

    After the meal was over and things were dying down, he'd pull out his pipe and start tamping down the tobacco residue from his last indulgence. Once fully packed, he'd open the tightly sealed bag of new, fresh, sweet smelling tobacco and filled his pipe. We all watched and waited until that too was tamped down then carefully lit with a long wooden match. The match burned atop the bowl of the pipe until it almost touched his fingers. With one fierce flip of his wrist, the flame would be gone. He'd puff – several times – pulling in long deep draws of air to fully light the mix. Its aroma filled the room. Wisps of white smoke swirled above his curly salt and pepper hair. He'd tilt his head back and exhale loudly. Then the stories started. We listened for hours. No radio in the background. No television blaring. Just the sound of his weekly "sermon" all geared to inform his little table of a congregation about his nickname, Dynamite Dal, or how my aunt was dropped on her head. Another of my grandfather’s favorite stories was how he met my grandmother. He often referred to her as his rose. We listened. We didn't interrupt. We didn't move. We didn't want to.

    We still linger around the table when our extended family gathers. And although there is no sermon, we tell the stories again. And we embellish them a little more. And we giggle and we laugh and we interrupt each other. There are always new relatives who haven’t heard the stories. That’s how they will learn about our family.

  2. Lingering at the dinner table, re-telling familiar stories, is a family tradition of ours. As each of our children brought home a prospective mate, we felt it was our duty to initiate them by letting them in on the family stories. How they reacted told us a great deal about how they would fit in our crazy mix. Key words could set off an explanation that would take hours to unfold. We've begun a list of those words because we never want to forget the stories. Someday we'll be able to elaborate to our grandchildren the true meaning of "Salt!", "Welcome to motherhood!", and "Her forehead smells good!" And along the way, we'll continue to add to our list as life offers things we don't want to forget. Story telling is not only good for our physical health but for maintaing the emotional health of a family.

  3. And handing down those stories to the generations is SO important. I like to picture my kids sitting around the table with their children and grandchildren. I do believe it strengthens family structure more than we can imagine.