Action 66

I can create a “healing story.” Resilient individuals have a particular way of creating a personal narrative that they share with others and that they tell themselves. The ways I tell my story will be central to whether I develop Posttraumatic Growth or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and related adjustment problems. In what ways do I tell my stories?

How To: Create a Healing Story

One of the things that differentiate us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s stories and they in turn can listen to ours. We can even tell ourselves stories. Instead of calling our species Homo Sapiens, we would be better characterized as “Homo Narrans”the story-telling species.

Every year of our lives, we add well over half a million minutes to our banks of experience. How we organize, chronicle, interpret, imbue them with meaning, share these experiences and weave them together into “stories” will influence how resilient we become.

We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. The tales we tell hold powerful sway over our memories, behaviors and even identities. Stories are fundamental to our being. Once you tell a story, it is hard to get out of that story’s framework. Over time, the stories we tell tend to get more dramatic. The stories we tell others and to ourselves grip our imagination, impregnate our hearts and animate our spirit. As human beings we are story tellers, but beware of the stories you tell, you will have to live by them.

There is a “metamorphosis of speech.” The stories that we hear from others turn into conscious inner speech, and then they in turn, become implicit, automatic, unconscious scripts and beliefs that guide and influence our behaviors. Like a pupa that turns into a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly that gives flight, the stories we tell ourselves and others have also been transformed.

  • Following exposure to traumatic events, up to 30% of individuals may evidence chronic distress, and even develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and related adjustment problems. Research by Ehlers and Clark (2000) indicated that individuals with PTSD have memory accounts that are usually brief, skeletal, fact-oriented, and journalistic without emotional depth. Their memories are often fragmented, insufficiently elaborated; details may be missing, lacking coherence of a beginning, middle and end, made up of bits and pieces. Their memories are also over-generalized (lacking in detail) that intensify their sense of helplessness and hopelessness and impairs their problem-solving abilities. Their traumatic narrative is inadequately integrated into their autobiographical memories. Their stories have an inflated sense of responsibility with accompanying excessive guilt and shame. They misperceive their distressing reactions as signs that they are “going crazy” and that they are “worthless” and that they are a burden on others. Their stories convey the belief that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, unjust, and that people are unappreciative of their sacrifices, untrustworthy and unsympathetic. They may feel marginalized, isolated, alienated and rejected.

For those who continue to struggle with the aftermath of the experience of traumatic and victimizing events, their trauma-related memories are viewed as being unwanted, uninvited and involuntary, poorly controlled, nor accepted. The trauma memories are mainly cue-driven so that any stimuli that resemble those that occurred surrounding the traumatic events can trigger re-experiencing symptoms and accompanying distressing feelings. The individual may act as if the threat is still present and re-experience it as if it was happening right now, rather than being a memory from the past. Such intrusive thoughts and accompanying intense feelings have been characterized like an “unwanted roommate” who keeps showing up but any attempt to get rid of him or her comes to no avail. The more one tries, the more bothersome the roommate becomes. But, the more one tries to avoid and stop him/her, the more persistent he/she becomes.

In their attempt to stop or suppress such thoughts and feelings, and in their efforts to avoid reminders, they may paradoxically experience even more intrusive distressing thoughts, images and intense feelings and urges. Their coping efforts at suppressing actually backfire and act like a boomerang, as noted by Wegner (1994). They may try to cope by self-medicating (using alcohol, drugs), by trying distractions of engaging in high-risk reckless behaviors (withdrawing, isolating themselves, being hyper vigilant, on “sentry duty” all the time) and by engaging in “safety behaviors”—constantly checking and rechecking and engaging in avoidant behaviors. But, such avoidant thinking and behaviors about the traumatic events prevents individuals from processing and incorporating such events into their life stories. It precludes them from obtaining corrective information that may help change any mistaken beliefs they may hold. Such avoidant behaviors prevent them from rebuilding their basic beliefs about themselves, the world and the future. In short, inadvertently, unwittingly, and perhaps, even unknowingly they make their level of distress even worse. Research indicates that the more individuals attempt to tamp down such unwanted thoughts, or when they try intentionally not to think of something, it has the opposite effect. One part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore ironically bringing it to mind.

  • In contrast, resilient individuals are psychologically agile and flexible in how they tell their stories. They view the traumatic events as being time-limited experiences that do not necessarily have negative implications for the future. They view their reactions such as intrusive recollections, sleep disturbance, nightmares, difficulties concentrating and the like as a normal part of recovery that follows from upsetting events. When resilient individuals tell their stories they include examples of what they did and how they coped and survived. They tell the “rest of their story.” They weave into their story-telling the upside of what happened, as well. They view any traumatic events that they experienced as a “turning point,” a “fork in the road,” a “temporary detour” on their personal life journey. Their stories are rich with healing metaphors, mottos, and examples of pain, but also survival. The metaphors that individuals use serve as a guide to their actions. Consider the differences and impact of individuals calling themselves “victims,” or “prisoners of the past,” or “walking time bombs,” “emotional zombies,” as compared to “survivors,” or “thrivers.” What metaphors do you incorporate in your story-telling?
  • Even though it is emotionally painful, resilient individuals are able to process their trauma-related memories, rather than avoid them. They are able to metaphorically “pack away” their memories as if they were “emotional luggage” or “file” them away as in a filing cabinet or cupboard. Resilient individuals can learn to choose when they open and close the valise, filing cabinet or cupboard. They are able to develop voluntary and deliberate control over their memories, as they repack and reorder their “emotional luggage.” By incorporating these trauma memories as part of their reconfigured and reauthored stories, they are able to place what happened in a broader autobiographical context. Not sharing such accounts, “clamming up,” only makes things worse.

Resilient individuals feel more in charge of how they tell and share their traumatic material. They can choose when, where and how they share their experiences. They tell their “stories.” Their stories do not tell them.

Stories are the means by which coping processes exert their influence. Retelling stories to supportive others allows individuals to generate “new stories” about who they are, what role trauma played in their lives and how these events fit into their future plans.

Story telling permits one to look at past events through a different set of lenses and helps develop a new outlook so the trauma memories will come to elicit less distress, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, and anger. Remember, it is not that one experiences such feelings, but what one does with these emotions that determines the level of recovery, resilience and personal growth.

  • Resilient individuals may take some time to experience grief or unhappiness, distress, anger and loss, sadness and anxiety, guilt and shame which improve their abilities to better appreciate the world in all of its complexity and richness.
  • Resilient individuals tend to tell stories that have “redemptive sequences” in which bad events have good outcomes, as compared to “contamination sequences” when the reverse happens.
  • Resilient individuals slow down how they tell their stories and break their experiences into pieces. They examine the pieces in terms of all the complexities and then they connect the dots. They do not act like a “Monday morning quarterback,” who has hindsight bias, blaming themselves for things they did not know at the time.
  • Resilient individuals are on the lookout for unexplored “open spaces” in their narrative that act as a guide to new goals and alternatives. Redemption stories bolster hope; strengthen self-confidence that their efforts will bear fruit. They strengthen the belief in the possibility of positive outcomes. Changes in story-telling provide access to new solutions.
  • Resilient individuals tend to tell coherent stories that create meaning out of their stressful life experiences and in which they see themselves as “personal agents” often with the assistance of others, of the positive changes that they have been able to bring about. These coherent narratives are clearly articulated, detailed, logical and well organized. Such coherent stories are salutary and help reduce distress. They increase the survivor’s sense of control over his or her experiences, reduce feelings of chaos and increase the sense that the world is predictable, orderly and beneficent. Coherent storytelling can provide a degree of “closure” by helping make sense of what happened and how people responded. Narrative coherence conveys feelings of personal self-efficacy and points a direction to the future. It is not enough to help individuals create a trauma narrative, but it is also essential to help individuals integrate such thoughts and feelings into a consistent coherent meaningful experience and story. Trauma is only one part of an individual’s life, rather than the defining aspect.
  • Resilient individuals have the ability and penchant to tell their fragmented stories in a chronological narrative with before, middle and post-trauma exposure or post-deployment parts. They are able to integrate what happened during deployment into their autobiographical memory and let the “past be the past.” As one resilient individual stated: “I have no interest in going back to the past and getting stuck again.” Resilient individuals refuse to allow the “trauma stories and images” to become dominant in their narrative and take away their sense of identity. They can disentangle themselves from the influence and lingering impact of traumatic events. They engage in a narrative healing process.
  • Resilient individuals avoid “thinking traps” that can derail their storytelling (See Action #64). Instead, they incorporate in their story-telling “cherished recollections,” “fond memories,” a “heritage of remembrances,” “change talk” (See Action #65), “RE-verbs” (See Action #62). Resilient individuals tell stories that enrich their lives and help them get past their personal challenges. They tell stories that they can pass onto the next generation, as “lessons learned.”
  • Resilient individuals tell their stories first and then they live their way into them. They may act “as if” they are characters in the stories that they tell. There may be a certain amount of “fake it, until you make it.”
  • Resilient individuals are “thought detectives”, noticing when they are falling into “thinking traps” and engaging in “negative self-talk.” They have the ability and motivation to ask themselves a series of Hinge Questions.
  • “Can I break my negative self-talk habits?”
  • “Can I notice, interrupt the chain of negative self-talk?”
  • “Am I blowing things out of proportion?”
  • “Am I using self-talk that is extreme or exaggerated with words like always, never, every time, should, must?”
  • “Does this always happen?”
  • “Do I never get a chance to do what I want?”
  • “Am I thinking in all-or-none terms?”
  • “Do I think mainly about bad things that happened and not about the good things?”
  • “What is the evidence for or against my beliefs?”
  • “Can I put things in perspective?”
  • “Can I control my what-if thinking patterns and limit rumination?”
  • “What is the worst thing that can happen if it comes true?”
  • “And if it does occur what would be so terrible?”
  • “Then what would happen?”
  • “What would that mean?”
  • “How likely is that to happen?”
  • “Can I handle the situation if that happens?”
  • “Can I change to a more balanced self-talk, instead of magnifying the negatives and minimizing the positives?”
  • “Can I restate my negative self-talk so it is in a form that helps me achieve my goals of . . . ?”
  • Resilient individuals listen to the stories they tell others and that they tell themselves. Their stories include:
  • Ways of facing, deliberately retrieving, voluntarily processing and sharing emotionally-charged trauma-related memories in an organized, controlled and coherent fashion
  • Consciously incorporating helpful and “wise” metaphors of survival and growth, as compared to negatively-loaded “victim” metaphors
  • Redemptive (positive endings) sequences that include what they did to survive
  • RE-words and change talk action verbs
  • Goal statements and “how to” pathways thinking
  • Problem-solving strategies, Action Plans with “if . . . then” statements and expressions of self-confidence and “grit” (dogged persistence)
  • Expressions of optimism, including statements of benefit finding and benefit remembering (“Silver lining” thinking), downward comparisons (“Could have been worse”) statements
  • Meaning-making statements (“Making a gift,” “Sharing lessons learned” statements)
  • Adoption of resilience and growth mindset where change is possible.

Ask yourself and others, if the stories you tell are elaborate, organized, coherent (having a beginning, middle and end) that are now integrated as part of your autobiographical memory? Does your story open up new possibilities for change and provide a positive blueprint for the future? If not, how can you begin to change your story? What can you do to develop a resilient mindset?

Action 67