Storytelling is a fundamental way of communication, from cave paintings to bonfire stories to movies. Who doesn’t love a good story? This is why we gather around the water fountain, the coffee machine, and our social media. Storytelling helps us bond and has many positive effects. How then could storytelling be causing us harm?
Whether we are making a keynote speech or a product sales presentation, we want to tell a compelling story. Marketing gurus teach that the effective approach is to talk about a problem our audience has – their “pain points” – before offering our solutions.
That seems reasonable. We are much more likely to remember a story than a list of bullet points of data. We also naturally look for ways of how something relates to ourselves.
When we listen to a story, multiple parts of our brain get activated. One of these areas is the insula, which helps us identify with the emotions of the story and is important for emotional awareness.1
Our brains also sync up. This can be a good thing, in that we can relate to others and are more likely to be helpful and cooperative.
Another reason why this is a good thing – our nervous system can self-regulate when we are with others who have a resilient and healthy autonomous nervous system.
So what happens when they don’t? What happens when our storytelling is causing harm?
What does a resilient and healthy nervous system mean?
The Polyvagal Model
One of the primary functions of our nervous system is to ensure the survival of our physical body. Our nervous system is always scanning for cues of danger and safety, both internally and externally, and marshalling the appropriate response. For many of us, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” – the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
A leading expert and researcher on the ANS, Stephen Porges sees the parasympathetic system as having more than just one pathway. According to the Polyvagal Theory he introduced in the early 1990s, the ANS has three neural circuits. This is an evolution-based model that recognizes the vagus nerve as having two distinct main branches, the ventral and dorsal, that give rise to very different nervous system states.
The three ANS neural circuits in hierarchical order are the ventral branch of the vagus nerve, spinal sympathetic chain, and the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve. They are activated when our nervous system perceives our environment to be safe, dangerous, or life-threatening, respectively. Hierarchical because the higher level circuit inhibits the actions of the lower ones. Ventral vagal activity or the social engagement state inhibits the defensive states – “mobilization with fear” and “immobilization with fear” states of sympathetic activation and dorsal vagal state, respectively.
The ventral branch of the vagus nerve is the most recent evolutionary development and a higher function. So when we feel safe, we are more cooperative and open-minded. We express prosocial behaviour.
How we respond
Another way of looking at this is when our prosocial behaviour fails and we feel unsafe, the spinal sympathetic chain is activated. Energy floods our system and we are mobilized for action. If we feel there is no point in fighting or fleeing, we move into the dorsal vagal state of withdrawal and shutdown. This can happen, for example, when being in the sympathetic state too long exhausts us and our thoughts of being able to conquer or even manage the situation veer toward hopelessness. We then may start entertaining thoughts of giving up. When the dorsal vagus is in control, we are conserving energy and just surviving, feeling numb and not present.
A healthy self-regulating nervous system allows us to shift back into the ventral or social engagement state when challenging situations are resolved. We very commonly move between ventral and sympathetic states during the day, between feeling safe and connected and taking action to deal with perceived danger.
This is, however, not true for everyone. Some people are left in a chronic sympathetic activation, or what can be termed “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.” Others may stay in the depressive state of dorsal vagal activity, which we can call post-traumatic stress shutdown. Yet others can flip flop between the two, both inhibiting social engagement.
How Storytelling Can be Harmful
We are encouraged to “talk about it”. I agree that talking about it can become the door for us to walk through back into an integrated state. It can also address and release any shame we may feel. Talking about it, however, can re-traumatize us and also traumatize those we share with.
This is how storytelling, especially of traumatic experiences, pain, and suffering, may not always be as healthy as we think. Our storytelling may actually cause harm. This includes using these storylines to engage an audience through the commonality of a negative experience.
The thing with trauma is that we don’t know what is traumatic for another person.
An example of how Storytelling can be Harmful
Stanley Rosenberg (2017) shares some interesting observations by psychologist Marc Levin who was part of a project in Denmark treating victims of trauma. The subjects received verbal and nonverbal therapy sessions from traditional psychologists, various body therapists, and a craniaoscral therapist. The difference was whether they started with craniosacral therapy or a verbal therapy.
The results were better for those who started with craniosacral, which Stanley Rosenberg has found effective in addressing cranial nerve dysfunction. Involved in the social engagement state are cranial nerves, such as the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X). With ventral vagal state restored, the subjects were more open and robust in dealing with their experiences.
It also seems that it was harder for those who had talk therapy first to let it go and some were restimulated. Stanley Rosenberg further offers that when “an authority figure who agrees with the grievance…this may reinforce its effect. It is thus possible for people to leave their session in worse shape than when they came in.”
If a person is in a depressive state, facial muscular tone is reduced. This flat effect “might trigger a transactional spiral that results in compromised emotional regulation and limited spontaneous social engagement.”3
Based on his own clinical work, he finds it critical to first lift people from a defensive state to a social engagement state. This way, not only do we make our storytelling less harmful, this prosocial energy can transform our stories to being present in our own lives.
When a person is socially engaged even some of the time, their interaction with others could be enough to begin to regulate their own nervous system.
Clinical social worker and trauma specialist Deb Dana reminds us that when we are in the sympathetic or dorsal state, our nervous system is not looking for connection, only survival. This is not a conscious decision. It is a “biological impossibility” for engagement. There is also a lack of willingness to look at change.
The question about storytelling is – what state is our nervous system in when we do it? And what state is our audience?
If our friend or therapist is in a ventral state, that energy can be extended to us. It can support and help us climb up the ladder to our highest function. Here, we are open to change and to entertain the possibility that our story can be different. We are more resourced and resilient to deal with past, current, and future challenges.
I like how Deb Dana points out that we all have what she calls “moments of messiness.” Because our nervous system picks up all these cues, it is important to verbalize what is happening. If left unverbalized, we tend to create stories, to make sense of our experiences. Instead of recognizing that the other person is only momentarily distracted, a person not in ventral vagal activity can easily interpret it as “no one cares” or “see, they are right, I’m useless.”
What to do?
In his book, Accessing the Healing Powers of the Vagus Nerve, Stanley Rosenberg shares his clinical experience based on the Polyvagal Theory. This is an easy to read resource that includes various exercises to test for ventral vagal function as well as restoring this state. The exercises are simple to do for ourselves and to share with others. Being grounded and increasing body sensing, such as lightly stroking our face, can help bring us out of stress and into ventral vagal state. Perhaps when you receive a massage, practice sensing where their hands are on your body.
*It is important to remember that trauma victims often can only be in a ventral state for very short durations initially. Please do seek out therapists specializing in trauma.
Deb Dana asks us to map our own response patterns. Discover for yourself what these two statements are in each of the states. “I am _____” and “The world is ______”. Having a map helps us track where we are. With greater awareness, we can have greater compassion for ourselves and make better choices. We can also more effectively tone our nervous system.
To understand more about the Polyvagal Theory, Deb Dana has a great PDF resource. She is also the author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy : Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation and the co-author with Stephen Porges of
Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory – The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies.
We are wired to connect and storytelling is a wonderful way to transmit data, information, and wisdom. The ability to sit enthralled, entranced, and engaged reflects our ability to inhibit our defensive mechanisms and come together with open minds and hearts. This is a prosocial activity that takes place when we are safe, feel safe, and physically well.
Stanley Rosenberg sees this as when “we can maintain a vibrant one without being collapsed or overly aroused.” It allows for rest and restitution and optimal physical and emotional health. Prosocial activity also helps others feel safe, making it conducive for creating new friendships, building relationships, and focusing on cooperation.
It is each of our responsibility to befriend our ANS, as Deb Dana calls it. She reminds us that nervous system longs to be with another nervous system. While how our nervous system responds or how our life experiences have shaped our nervous system may not be our conscious choice, we do have choices. It is our choice to bring greater awareness to where we are. We can also adopt practices that build resilience. We can then meet each other in a ventral vagal state of social engagement. In this state, we can more easily hold space for others and ourselves, with greater kindness, benevolence, and compassion.
We all love stories. Let’s not have our storytelling cause more harm and distress. Let our stories connect us and lift us all to our highest evolutionary function.
1 Anterior Insular Cortex and Emotional Awareness. Xiaosi Gu,1,2,* Patrick R. Hof,3,4 Karl J. Friston,1 and Jin Fan3,4,5,6 [link] retrieved February 16 2019).
2 Accessing the Healing Powers of the Vagus Nerve. Stanley Rosenberg. p140.
3 The Polyvagal Theory : Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. Stephen W Porges. WW Nortion & Company, London. 2011 p15.