How a Narrative Therapy Approach Can Help us Heal

3 min read

When I decided to write a book about illness anxiety, I thought it would be a purely professional and clinical endeavor. But as I started to put the words down, it gradually morphed into a healing and restorative experience. I realized that what I was writing was coming from an intensely personal place, culled from my own experiences of anxious, sleepless nights, emergency room visits, heart-pounding panic attacks and feelings of certitude that I was about to become (or already was) horribly, irreversibly ill.

The Benefits of a Narrative Approach

One of the tenets of narrative therapy is to begin altering the “problem story,” to begin challenging our long-held narrative about ourselves and replacing it with an alternate story. For a long time, my dominant problem-saturated personal narrative had been one of worry, dread, and impending doom, in the form of catastrophic worries about my health.

After therapy and years of self-work to heal from persistent, obsessive worry, I reached a place where I was ready to tell the story of illness anxiety as it had affected me, as it affects others, and why there is hope. The stories we choose to author and share play a vital role in how we heal from our life’s challenges. I chose to tell this story because it was, I believe, the next stage in my own healing process.

Stories Make Us Human

There is a reason some stories stand the test of time: they resonate with our human experience. Take The Odyssey, for instance: the conquering hero returns home safety, beaten and battered, but intact and victorious. It was relatable in 700 BCE and it’s relatable today. As we recover from anxiety, we are somewhat like Odysseus; we’ve battled the sirens of worry, become battle-worn but ultimately, survived. Herein lies the value of a narrative approach. It humanizes us, helps us find commonality, inspires us, and heals us through a deeper understanding of and connectedness to the human condition.

I imagine that, like most authors, what I thought I was writing for an audience I was, in truth, writing for myself. In an interview, the late rock and roll legend Tom Petty spoke of his inability to make sense of why he wrote his beautiful song “Wildflowers.” According to a New York Times article, “Petty’s therapist floated his own theory: ‘That song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.’” This is the crux and the benefit of narrative therapy: it allows us to author and share the stories we need to hear. Our stories often ripple outward and affect others in a positive way.

Rethinking Your Story

Struggling with illness anxiety is, and always will be, a part of my personal story. I accept that. It is, however, no longer the dominant narrative. I am proud to now be able to share a narrative that is multilayered, nuanced, and filled with many themes and motifs. As you think about your story, ask yourself if you are only telling the problem-saturated parts. Are you celebrating all the uniqueness and nuance of your personal narrative? If not, there’s always time to find the alternate parts of the story that are hidden beneath the dominant narrative.

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