Story Work in Trauma Healing

Melissa Affolter |

Story-based work in counseling has become increasingly accepted and recommended for those experiencing the impact of trauma. Many therapeutic professionals agree that a significant part of the healing process for trauma is the practice of telling one’s story. Stories allow the one who has been traumatized to remember and name their experiences, and to make sense of jumbled and often chaotic memories.

Stories, when told in safety, can shift trauma from being the main thread so that hope becomes a more central theme. In a sense, stories offer a space for co-regulation, as the one telling the story discovers comfort and a with-ness effect from the one listening. Story-focused work cannot ultimately be a solitary practice because stories must be told in the presence of someone else. One of the healing properties of telling our stories, as Diane Langberg regularly notes, is that another person “bears witness,” affirming the reality of our experience. 

As story-focused work has gained momentum in the trauma counseling community more recently, I have seen its impact on my practice as a counselor. Over the past six years, I have facilitated a counseling support group called ReStoried, where a dozen or so women gather for a series of guided discussions related to the experience of abuse and trauma. We combine aspects of education and trauma-informed care with story practices that allow us to explore spiritual realities and re-engage with community. 

Those who have experienced the disorienting impact of trauma may feel anxious to engage with their stories, having various concerns and questions about what to expect. They wonder, “Will I be required to share specifics?”; or, “What if it triggers a response in me that feels too difficult to manage?” It is normal to experience apprehension at the proposal of telling our stories, fearing that we will have to relive the brutal ways we have been harmed. Re-experiencing a traumatic event or unearthing specific memories does not need to be the end goal of engaging in story work. Telling one’s story with sincerity or vulnerability is less about the who, what, when, and where (in terms of specific details), and more about the contours and textures of the story. 

Stories often do not have tidy conclusions. We see this pattern emerge when we consider various stories in scripture. We do not know what life looked like for the woman with the bleeding problem [see Mark 5:25-34]. Did she find herself received back into the community she had likely been ostracized from? Were her relationships restored? What kind of trauma responses did she perhaps struggle with in light of spending twelve years suffering as an outcast? We can find ourselves uncomfortable with stories that lead to more questions than resolutions. As counselors who love Jesus, we welcome the discomfort and the questions into our space rather than seeking to resolve matters quickly. 

Story work provides the opportunity to gain perspective, sometimes allowing a person to see herself through a different lens. Perhaps where an individual only felt shame, she can begin to find compassion and dignity. Where she has experienced confusion and overwhelm, there may be an expanded capacity to settle her thoughts. As one of my ReStoried group participants said, “I no longer see myself in the third person or from a distance. It’s as if I came close to myself.” Stories are invitations to be seen and to see. 

In conjunction with this blog post, CTHN has partnered with Melissa Affolter and Beth Broom to create a worksheet called “Discovering Outcomes of Distressing Experiences.” CTHN members can access this worksheet HERE. To become a CTHN member, click HERE.

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