Writing and Storytelling: To Survive, and to Thrive

I am an integrative arts-based psychotherapist, and a creative writing tutor with a background in screenwriting. My passion is in exploring how a fusion of theories and techniques from these two disciplines might inform each other, to enable growth and healing in the therapy room and beyond.

Storytelling plays the central role that in all of our lives. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. We default into daydreaming whenever we are not involved in an immediate, absorbing task. As Gottschall (2013, p. xiv) describes, “We are, as a species, addicted to story… Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”


Telling Stories Saves Lives

Writing, telling, reading, or listening to stories, causes the firing of neurons and the strengthening of neural pathways in the brain in same way performing the actions for real would do. Stories allow us to encounter various life obstacles in symbolic guise and to practice ways of solving them, without endangering ourselves.

        In recent studies it has been found that the great majority of dreams are about “a problem that needs to be solved” Gottschall (2013, p. 52). So, it may be that stories are, as, psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley (2011, quoted in Gottschall p. 58) puts it, “the flight simulators of human social life.”

        Telling stories is not a luxury for human beings, it is vital to our survival and flourishing.

In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve seen how storytelling can play a crucial role in rescuing us when ‘real’ life is unbearable. The state of dissociation, of feeling detached from a situation, often involves elements of storytelling. Below is the account of one of my clients. She describes herself as a survivor of sexual abuse.

“I could see the window from where I lay. I would look out of the window at the birds flying. I would imagine I too was flying, and that I could go anywhere, do anything. I would visit beautiful places and talk to kind people who reassured me that I would get through it. I believe this is what stopped me from going crazy, or from killing myself.”

Storytelling save lives- literally.


Organismic self-regulation

The majority of stories, both fiction and non-fiction, can be broken down into a three-act structure that goes something like this. In Act 1 the lead character’s life situation is set up. In Act 2 they encounter obstacles on the path to what they want to achieve. In Act 3, the situation is resolved. This is the emotional trajectory of the lead character, and narrative arc. It is marked by the rising of tension to the climax of the story, followed by the falling of tension to the denouement, and closure.

        I refer to the work of screenwriter Lew Hunter (1994) when utilising this structural analysis for my own writing, as well as in my teaching work.  Similar dramatic elements are also cited in dramatherapy, where they form the basis of the 6-Part Story Method. (Lahad, 1992, p. 150-163).

        When telling or writing a story, the storyteller lives their lead character’s journey, on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. This is equally true whether the character is themselves remembered, or fictional. I’ve found it helpful in my work to relate the storyteller’s journey to psychotherapist Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing model. He describes the activation that occurs in the body of a human animal when faced by a threat or opportunity in the environment. If successfully negotiated, this is followed by a discharge of energy from the nervous system, and the organism returns to equilibrium.

        The storyteller can be seen to exhibit signs of activation in the body, when they write about, or describe, their character encountering an obstacle. I have often seen colour drain from their face, and their eyes widen at this point.  When the character overcomes the obstacle, colour floods back into the storyteller’s face, and they release a sigh. They’ve described to me the profound sense of relief that comes with this discharge of energy.

        Cycles of activation through to discharge can also be identified throughout the creative process, as the storyteller encounters and negotiates the various obstacles to completing any story. Examples of the threats might include: family members coming into their writing room, having doubts about the strength of the story idea, or fearing the reaction of a therapist when information is revealed.

        The human being maintains health, the organismic self-regulation ofHefferline R, and Goodwin, P. (2011, p. 247) through the process of telling and writing stories, as well as via the journey that occurs inside the story. In the language of Gestalt psychotherapy, the completing of the story enables the completion of the cycle of awareness and contact.


Re-finding the Natural Storyteller

I work with two distinct groups with respect to storytelling: creative writing students, and psychotherapy clients. I do not perceive the underlying aim of the creative writer and the therapy client to be different. I believe that unconsciously they are both primarily seeking a return to organismic equilibrium through storytelling. However, when they first talk to me, the two groups may describe their goals quite differently. While the therapy client will often speak of wanting to “feel better”. The creative writing student will “want to finish that novel” or “to get published”.

        Whether the teller labels their story fiction, or non-fiction does not affect my approach, as I believe that the story we want to tell is always a symbolic representation of issues in our lives that seek resolution, just variously disguised. Underneath everything, there is emotion, energy, that needs integrating into the system as a whole. Often when I work, I “stick with the image” (McNiff 1992, p. 55). I stay within the story, without reference to the context of the telling, aiming to enable it to become more fully formed and expressible. When the client or student has completed the story, in a way that satisfies them, they are then free, of course, to fulfil any other aims. They can choose to guard the experience of the telling as private one, or, to take their story into the public realm.

        If, in the therapy room, the client has told a fictional story, useful links between symbolic representations and the ‘real’ world, and new awareness around issues, can arise spontaneously, after the telling is complete. Very often only minimal intervention needed to achieve that.  To some extent, when the hero learns how to overcome obstacles in the fictional world, the storyteller is simultaneously empowered to work with obstacles in real life.

        Of course, with some client groups I have worked with in hospital settings, it has been necessary to help clients to differentiate between what is fiction and what is fact. Where clients experience delusions or hallucinations, helping them to make distinctions between the real and imagined is a fundamental part of helping them to function well in the world.

        My job, as both a psychotherapist and creative writing tutor, is to help the individual to re-find their natural storyteller. Firstly I support them to learn to trust their innate ability to tell their story. Secondly, I help them to negotiate the interruptions to the completion of that communication.


Writer’s Block

Writers use the terms writer’s block and creative block. Therapy clients also refer to ‘feeling blocked’. These terms refer to an inability to express, or to complete a creative process. Block is usually frustrating, and sometimes agonising. It can finish careers and sabotage relationships.

        Peter Levine (2010) describes how the freezing of body and mind, is a life-saving strategy used throughout the animal kingdom if the flight and fight responses are not possible. However, he notes (2010, p. 56) that in human beings, in certain situations, it can become “inextricably and simultaneously coupled with intense fear and other strong negative emotions.”

        Energy becomes trapped in the nervous system, and the cycle of activation through to discharge is unable to complete.

        When clients or creative writing course participants are inhibited in their ability to tell a story, I often observe a freezing of the body, and mind, characterised by stilted sentences, and tense muscles. They frequently report feeling a sense of helplessness.

        As the therapist or course facilitator, my first awareness of their block usually arrives via the transference. I find myself inexplicably feeling stuck in various ways. I note I am holding my breath, or tensing my muscles. Sometimes my thoughts are fragmented and I struggle myself to form words.


Interruptions To Contact

To be blocked is to experience the flow of thoughts or words as interrupted. Interruptions to the ability to tell stories often originates from the needs and desires of the individual having become fused over time, with the needs of others. Not infrequently, the other was a caregiver in childhood. Both in the therapy room and in creative writing group work, participants may initially repeat the stories that they feel they should tell, as well as defining themselves in self-limiting ways through their stories. The internalising of other’s viewpoints may manifest as negative or critical internal voices. This happens on at least two levels, as there is always a story to be told about the telling of a story!

        I help those I work with to separate out the voices of others, from the expression of their own needs and desires.

        My work with ‘Jed’ illustrates this. Jed approached me two years ago. He was a stooped 27 year-old man, presenting with writer’s block as well as physical health complaints. He told me that his father was a well-known poet. “I’m scared that I will never write poetry as great as my father’s” he said, “and it’s ceasing me up”. I guided him through body awareness exercises. He became aware of where the block was located in his body, as well as where he could touch into flow. Moving between the two, he found ways of “chipping away” at the block, until it dissolved into flow. I also employed narrative-making techniques. Through these he explored his sense of self.  After the fifth session he phoned me, very excited. “I’m writing. The words won’t stop coming! But now I have another problem, I’m writing a comedy screenplay, not poetry. I’ve realised that poetry isn’t my thing. It never was.”

I facilitate the bringing into awareness those aspects of self that have been disowned. What emotions has the storyteller forgotten how to feel because they were unacceptable to family, friends or society at large? What emotions are they afraid to contact because they don’t know how to contain them and therefore fear being consumed by them? The storyteller must “safely learn to contain” his or her powerful sensations, emotions and impulses without becoming overwhelmed (Levine, 2011, p. 68).

        The aim is for the individual to be able to tell their story whilst staying in steady contact with the emotions involved, at an appropriate level of detail, and without either diverging from, or drowning in them.

        It is usually possible to spot in stories where the teller has found it challenging to engage with certain aspects of their experience. They will diverge from, summarise, or skim over parts of the story. As the listener or reader, I disengage from the story, thus mirroring the teller’s experience.

        Here I’d like to cite the example of a psychotherapy client I’ll call ‘Sue’. She was dispirited by her lack of success as a writer. We looked together at her unpublished novel. What I noticed was that every time a plot line called for anger, just before she reached the climax of the conflictual event, she cut away from the action, and began a new scene. For historical reasons, she was unable to tolerate the feeling of anger in herself, and therefore unable to write to the heart of the action. I supported Sue to learn to use the page as a vessel to contain the strong feelings in her body. When she could do that, she was able to channel anger on to the page, powerfully and vividly.  

When an individual can tell their story, unashamedly, they are able to stand proudly in the fullness of who they are. That also enables them to delight in the potential of who they might become. They can then relate authentically to others, and to their world. They discover a quality of connection that they could previously not even of dreamed of. Ironically, it’s in finding what we have in common with all other animals, that we find our unique voice as storytellers.



GOTTSCHALL, J. (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Mariner.

HUNTER, L. (1994) Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434. New York: Penguin.

LEVINE, P. A. (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley : North Atlantic Books

MCNIFF, S. (1992) Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala.

LAHAD, M. (1992) Storymaking in Assessment Method for Coping With Stress. In S. JENNINGS (Ed.) Dramatherapy Theory and Practice II. London: Routledge.

PERLS F, HEFFERLINE R, and GOODWIN, P.  (2011) Gestalt Psychotherapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.  Maine: Gestalt Journal Press.

PROPP, V. I. (1968) Morphology of the Folktale (L. A. Wagner, Trans. 2nd revised ed.) Austin: University of Texas Press.


This article was first published in Spring 2016 in The Psychotherapist Magazine.