Cultivating Resilience Through Story

This piece was originally published on Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on May 19, 2017.

Source: Jan Kahanek/Unsplash

Source: Jan Kahanek/Unsplash

How storytelling can help you gain control over life's disasters.

I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at the age of 35—and am now three years in remission.

Not long ago, I went back and read the journal that I kept throughout my cancer experience. I had an a-ha moment as I read the words I had penned.

I realized I was holding an important tool for cultivating resilience right there in my hands: I’m not just talking about my journal—but rather my story.

Here are three ways you can unlock the power of story to help you navigate life’s disasters.

Share your story when you’re ready

Journalist Michele Weldon notes, “We all lead lives worthy of preservation. Our stories need to be told, if to no one else, then only to ourselves…”

Yet, sharing our personal disaster stories with others can be difficult. I was in remission for nearly two years before I shared my cancer disaster story publicly. Before that, I just shared small bits and pieces of my story with the people closest to me.

I learned our stories are not something to be rushed.

In the past, mental health professionals used an intervention called “critical incident debriefing” immediately after disasters. The idea was that if we could get people together to tell their stories right after a major tragedy, we could prevent them from experiencing long-term trauma. We now know at best this approach is not helpful and at worse is all out harmful.  

Sometimes we need to hold on to our stories for a time so we can properly cope with them. Don’t feel like you have to rehash or relive unwanted events if you’re not ready. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing.

Sharing our trauma before we are ready is like volunteering to have a wound opened when there are no supplies available for bandaging the injury. Be patient with your story and allow yourself to heal before you share it with others.

Be mindful of who you trust with your story

After finding out I had cancer, I had to get a CT scan to further assess how much it had spread.

It was then that I realized I was going to have to tell my three little girls that “Daddy has cancer.” I started sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. The tech had to stop the scan.

She asked what was wrong and why I was getting the scan. After briefly sharing my story, she replied, “God only tests the strong,” and, “At least you don’t have it as bad as I did when I battled cancer.” Because I’ve studied trauma long enough, I was able to brush off her unhelpful comments.

But I was left wondering how deeply these well-meaning but poorly chosen words might have affected others with whom she’s likely shared the same platitudes.

Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position if you can prevent it—choose safe people.

Reach out to family members, friends, or helpers (e.g., psychologists) who you know you can trust with your story.

Keep telling your story

The more you tell your story, the more control you’ll gain over your personal disaster experience. Perhaps you’ve seen this in action as a disaster survivor repeats their story over and over to others.

I saw it with a survivor after a flood in Northern Illinois, who eagerly shared the same version of his story almost verbatim with each new volunteer that came to help over the course of the day: “You wouldn’t believe how high the waters were…” and, “You can’t imagine how high the waters were…”

I saw it in Japan after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, where I met an elderly woman who shared her story with us while our team visited an evacuation shelter. She said, “Every time you come to visit, you remove rubble from my heart.”

These two people survived very different catastrophes. They lived in different countries thousands of miles apart. Both came from very different cultures and backgrounds. Yet, both were instinctively using one of humankind’s most powerful and oldest traditions—storytelling—to cope with their disaster experiences. 


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website, Subscribe here to get the latest from via the Humanitarian Disaster Institute sent directly to your inbox.