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Judy Masterson: Personal stories benefit teller, listener

Thomas Delany Jr. Staff Photographer.
Judy Mastersresporter for The News Sun.

Thomas Delany Jr. Staff Photographer. Judy Masterson, resporter for The News Sun. 7/12/06

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Updated: February 12, 2011 2:05AM

End-of-life caregivers have long known that personal storytelling is a powerful exercise. It can help put a life in perspective, encourage forgiveness, calm fears and bring emotional healing. But new research suggests that just listening to someone else’s story can improve physical health.

The Annals of Internal Medicine is reporting the results of a trial that found that when a group of patients lowered their high blood pressure by listening to personal stories.

The study, the topic of discussion in a recent New York Times medical blog, monitored the blood pressure of nearly 300 African-American patients from an urban area who had been diagnosed with hypertension. Every three months, researchers gave half the study participants videos in which similar patients shared their stories and experiences. The other half watched less personal videos that contained generic health information. All the patients who watched the storytelling videos were better able to control their blood pressure. But even more remarkable, those who started the study with uncontrolled hypertension “were able to achieve and maintain a drop as significant as it had been for patients in previous trials testing drug regimens.”

Dr. Thomas Houston, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said his research suggests that storytelling’s power to “help us make sense of our lives” can also alter behavior.

Others suggest that the study shows there may be a communication gap between patient and clinician and that struggling patients need more contact — even mentorship — from others who have successfully coped with the same medical condition. A physician who practices pain medicine argues that modern medicine has failed “to value the personal narratives of the patients we treat,” that “we have conditioned them to believe that their stories do not matter.”

None of this is surprising. Storytelling has always, from the very beginning, been a highly potent medicine.

In sharing our stories, as the late, great writer John Steinbeck said, we are administering to each other the most important elixir of all: the knowledge that we are not alone.

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