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The Healing Power of Story

by Sandi Stromberg, MA

Wellness image

Human beings are born storytellers. In prehistoric times, they carved images on walls. Later, they worked as scribes, selling their services in open-air markets, or told legends around the fire. In the Middle Ages, they traveled the countryside as bards, regaling listeners with their tales. And before television, they sat in family groups at kitchen tables or rocked on front porches, spinning yarns.

In the 21st century, we no longer have unoccupied time. Instead, we live noisy lives in an information glut that has distanced us from story. And perhaps nothing is more distancing than a cancer diagnosis. In the process of coping, we may forget we were fully functioning human beings with active lives. When we tell others about ourselves, we often tell only the story of our cancer.

Yet, the simple act of journaling, often called expressive writing, can bring us back to ourselves and the stories we have to tell. Studies currently being conducted show that when people with cancer write about their traumatic experiences, they may experience less sleep disturbance, feel less stressed, anxious, or depressed, and can better cope with their illness.

Probably the most important aspect of journaling is to get in touch with emotions. We live in a world that seldom allows us to voice our true feelings, but it is important to process them. Because journaling is a private affair between us and the paper, we can record our anger and sadness, our frustrations and fears. We also should record those moments of joy. One way to do that is by writing down three gratitudes at the end of each day, even if they are something as small as a good cup of coffee, less traffic on the road, or a simple kindness from someone.

Probably the most important aspect of journaling is to get in touch with emotions.

Author of Article photo

Sandi Stromberg

In my classes, participants have made personal discoveries while often connecting with others in the session. Writing the story of a gourmet brunch he and his wife shared on a Houston terrace brought tears of joy to one man’s eyes. Another woman discovered, as she wrote, why she’d lost a friend. She couldn’t wait to get home to renew their relationship. When a man, deep in despair, told of his diagnosis with a rare kind of cancer, a woman in the class put her hand on his arm and told him she was a four-year survivor of the same disease. For a long moment, he held her hand, his face flooded with a smile.

These are the surprising and healing aspects of journaling our stories. We never know quite where the pen will take us as we let it glide across the page. Yet, a self-discovery that can enhance our lives may be in the next flourish of words.

Where Do I Start?

  1. Buy yourself a nice journal or notebook. Your words are worth it. Don’t be afraid to write in it.
  2. Choose the time of day most convenient for you. You may consider getting up 15 minutes earlier if you are a morning person, write on a coffee break at work, or take out your journal before you go to bed. Make a goal to write once a week for 10 to 15 minutes. Once that becomes a routine, try adding a day.
  3. Choose a place that is comfortable and relaxing, where you can be alone and focus on your thoughts.
  4. Write whatever comes to mind. Let your mind wander and your words flow. Don’t edit yourself.
  5. If you find yourself staring at the blank page, simply write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over. Eventually, other words will come. Another way to begin is to write stories about your past: the schools you attended, your good friends over the years, teachers, places you’ve lived. Don’t worry about your spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Journaling isn’t an English class.

Tips for Journaling

  • Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss a day when you’ve planned to write.
  • Date your entries. When you go back to read them, you’ll want to know when you made certain entries.
  • If you prefer journaling on a computer, print the pages and keep them in a notebook.
  • Write what you want to write. Remember, the journal is for you.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sandi Stromberg has been offering journaling classes for patients and caregivers at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Place … of wellness for the past seven years. She is program manager of the institution’s external publications.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2009.