How Strangers Use Storytelling to Help Others—and Themselves

6 minute read

Last December, as COVID-19 cases spiked and travel restrictions tightened, Deborah Goldstein and her 85-year-old mother journeyed to a faraway forest in Scotland.

There, instead of political pundits and dooming newsfeeds, they met an animal-loving teenager, her evil stepmother, and 12 magical elves. In two weeks, they’ll travel somewhere else—without leaving their Manhattan apartments.

That far-off destination in Scotland was the setting of one story told in the free, virtual circle that Goldstein, her mother, and dozens of others join every other Thursday. Hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture—one of many groups creating online spaces to share stories—the circle gives credence to a growing body of research connecting storytelling to profound mental health benefits, which is particularly welcome as anxiety and loneliness continue to climb.

Before Goldstein became immersed in the virtual circle’s stories, she found herself “rabidly reading” a different kind of story: the news. But the recent retiree soon realized that constantly keeping up with the news was “a lot”—a feeling so ubiquitous that even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised taking breaks. Goldstein, a self-described anxious person, realized she needed an escape.

Though Goldstein says she’s always loved folk storytelling, she’d “never gone to anything like this, or known it existed” until Ethical Culture—a group she’d long been a member of—started offering virtual storytelling circles during the pandemic. Now, for the past year and a half, she’s attended regularly. “It wasn’t talking about COVID, it wasn’t talking about politics, it was just comforting,” Goldstein says of the circle. “I found my anxiety definitely lessening.”

Goldstein is far from alone: a study of hospitalized children in Brazil found that those who had stories told to them experienced increased levels of oxytocin and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than a control group.

Daniel Weinshenker, director of the Denver office of StoryCenter—another group offering online circles and workshops—says there’s a primal reason why storytelling might lower anxiety while creating comfort in times of uncertainty. Much like Ethical Society, StoryCenter’s circles happen through Zoom (with the camera optional), and usually consist of five to 25 people. But instead of a few storytellers sharing a made-up tale at random, Weinshenker invites everyone in the room—sometimes in pairs— to share a true story related to a specific prompt, usually involving a “moment of change.” This, he says, can help people cope with the changes, especially the unexpected ones, happening in their own lives. “Most of us go through life with a lot of assumptions, and an idea that things are going to stay the way they are,” says Weinshenker, who’s trained in social work. But when those assumptions are challenged, it can cause deep distress. “[For instance], growing up in the Bay Area, it was common for us to feel earthquakes,” he says. “But when someone new would move to San Francisco, and the ground would move, it would blow them out of their sense of normalcy and comfort, and their whole relationship with the ground and the world.”

COVID-19, in that sense, has been like an earthquake, ushering in a period of unprecedented loss, grief, and uncertainty. But rather than forcing storytellers to explicitly talk about the uncertainty in their lives, Weinshenker’s prompts—to “talk about a small hero,” for instance—invite storytellers to choose how they prefer to cope, by escaping from that uncertainty or processing it directly. “You could escape back to your childhood and talk about your grandma or your cat or a special totem,” he explains. “Or you could talk about a small hero that gets you through the day, which would then require you to talk about what’s going on in your days that you need rescuing from.”

According to one study, patients struggling with drug abuse experienced statistically significant reductions in depression and anxiety scores after they had been treated with narrative therapy—a form of directly processing adverse events through storytelling. Another study found that people who wrote stories that drew on “traumatic, stressful, or emotional events” saw improvements in physical and psychological health. And more recently, backed by these promising results, researchers predicted that those who could create a positive and coherent narrative out of COVID-19 would experience greater emotional well-being, plus have an easier time coping.

Still, Weinshenker is careful not to enforce the idea that the stories told in his workshop must have a happily-ever-after ending. ​​“We encourage people to be honest about what closure means to them,” he says. “So, even though the [stressful] situation hasn’t changed, maybe their acceptance of it has.”

Beyond the benefits that arise from processing individual stressors, sharing stories as a group, Weinshenker says, can elicit shared benefits: validation that “the world is hard,” and connection around the ways people are “struggling” through the hard stuff together.

That sense of shared resilience against a mutual struggle might explain why storytelling has had such success in health care settings: when engaged in storytelling activities, patients with breast cancer, dementia, and chronic illness exhibited reduced social isolation, improved quality of life, and stronger peer-to-peer bonds. And though not as measurable, the group format—premised on listeners asking questions and sharing reflections—grants storytellers a special insight into themselves. “Stories beget stories,” Weinshenker says, “And when you have a space to hear others’ stories, or think about your own, it invites you to listen to yourself in a different way.”

Often, he says, storytellers don’t know why they choose to tell certain stories, or what impact those stories create, until after they’ve shared with the group. He points to one recent example: when a nurse who had typically worked with first-time mothers and babies could no longer make home visits during the pandemic, she told a seemingly unrelated story about a small bird she rescued from outside her window. “She hadn’t realized it before, but in telling this story, she’s making all these connections about how she took care of this bird in the same way she used to take care of her patients and their babies,” Weinshenker explained. “She’s recognizing what she’s lost over the past 18 months, and how she’s coped.”

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