Research shows: stories have the power to heal

6a0105369e3ea1970b0147e2053f51970b 320wi - Research shows: stories have the power to heal What is the best approach to encourage people to tend to their personal wellness and health – and how do we overcome cultural barriers? 

It may be telling a story … as long as it’s the right kind of story. 

This was recently proven in studies addresing one of the most common, and most difficult, medical conditions to treat :  high blood pressure.

Treatment plans require that people take their medications, follow a specific diet and see their physicians on a regular basis – which is more than many people are willing to do.  When they don’t look after their own health the mortality rate for those with high blood pressure goes up. The work of overcoming hypertension is especially hard on the African American community. Reports have come to show that social and cultural barriers have made it challenging to treat this illness in the community, and that African Americans are more likely to suffer from the long list of complications that often come with hypertension such as heart disease and stroke.

A recent study published in the January 2011 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Culturally Appropriate Storytelling to Improve Blood Pressure: A Randomized Trial” draws on the cultural strength of the African American community as a way to help patients initiate and maintain their treatments.

Researchers at UMass Medical School, Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham proposed that stories drawn from community members about their experiences with hypertension would inspire other patients to make positive changes in their behavior for better health. They initially brought together stories gathered from 14 African American who they saw as being clear and persuasive in their narratives. In 80 hours of videotaping, they were able to gather personal stories from each person about their experiences after receiving the diagnosis, working with physicians, getting their medication and finding ways to follow through with taking their meds, maintaining their diet and exercise practices. The researchers then developed an interactive 3 DVD set of these visual stories. 299 African Americans with hypertension were randomly assigned to view the three videos along with their usual care.

The power of the story emerged: the patients who had what is defined as uncontrolled hypertension (untreated, or not maintaining treatment) lowered their blood pressure and were able to maintain their personal practices to keep hypertension at bay better than those who did not view the DVD’s but received traditional care.

This study is backed up with previous research on the power of storytelling.

A research study published in the journal Qualitative Health Research, “Talk that Talk: Storytelling and Analysis Rooted in African American Oral Tradition”  by Banks-Wallace, looked at how storytelling within the African American community can bring about physical, mental and spiritual healing. Out in the world, we witness the scenes of people gathering in churches, homes and centers of community. We gather to tell our stories to and with others. There is a sense of relief when we are able to share with others what we are experiencing, what we have learned, our hopes and our sorrows – creating a shared story.


Banks-Wallace offers the following, “Group storytelling can be especially useful for examining how a phenomenon is conceived of in a given population, its perceived relation to larger life, and specific factors influencing behavior in relation to the phenomenon.”


In relation with the UMass study, it becomes clear how the power of storytelling supports better treatment by making it an issue of both heart and mind.   The subjects in the UMass study weaved together of shared stories that were then given to others as a way to bring everyone together in their struggles and successes with hypertension. Knowing that we can overcome is powerful and healing.

The remarkable aspect of this research study is that the researchers say that this is the first study that is focuses on using storytelling as a positive and culturally aware health intervention. It may be more appropriate to say that this is the first published study that champions storytelling as an intervention. The success of this research will help make get the word out to hospitals, clinics, medical administrators and policy makers that by looking within the indigenous wisdom of culture we can save lives.

 — Makenna Berry

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