How Telling Your Story in Narrative Therapy May Help Heal Trauma
Experts define trauma as the emotional reaction that stems from potentially harmful or life-threatening events, including:
- A robbery or act of violence is a single event.
- Large-scale events, like war or natural disaster.
- Chronic child abuse is one of the multiple events that continue over time.
Unresolved trauma, whatever its cause, can have short- and long-term effects. It can shake the foundations of your identity, relationships with others, and philosophy on life as a whole. It can also create patches of mental “fog” where your memory seems vague, disjointed, or absent entirely.
“Sometimes trauma can feel too intense to think about. Narrative therapy can help you get more clarity on past events so you don’t forget. You may find it easier to understand and cope with trauma if you have a clearer picture of it.”
Learn more about narrative therapy for trauma, including how it works, what to expect from a session, and how it might benefit you.
Humans tend to make meaning out of their lives by organizing their memories into stories. Narrative therapy uses stories to change how you react to the past.
Narrative therapy can be used for a range of symptoms.
Narrative therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is called narrative exposure therapy (NET). Maggie Schauer, Frank Neuner, and Thomas Elbert developed NET in 2005 to help They are refugees.and People who have survived torture..
NET is mainly used to address complex trauma (CPTSD), which stems from prolonged harm or multiple traumatic events. Experts call this trauma “complex” because the pain from each incident can combine to grow into something bigger than the sum of its parts.
NET is a versatile approach to therapy, which can be used in group or individual therapy with both children and adults.
How long does NET take?
According to the original manual, published in 2005, some people noticed improvement after just three to six sessions.
The 2011 edition of the manual, however, recommends
Depending on how many traumatic events you have experienced, the recommended length of treatment can be different.
During a traumatic event, your body prioritizes survival. As a result, it may delay non-urgent functions like digestion or memory encoding.
You can learn more about trauma responses.
Scientists believe PTSD can develop when your brain creates incomplete memories of a traumatic event. You might find certain emotional and physical details, like your panic or pain, very easy to recall. But others, like the contextual details of where and when the event happened, may prove more elusive.
“Your brain doesn’t know where to look for the memory without this context. It may be that the traumatic event is tied to minor sensory details because of the lack of a better organizational category.”
- A song is on the radio.
- The smell of smoke.
- The weather.
“You might feel like you’re waiting for a spark of reminder, as if the memory is drifting in your head.”
Narrative therapy is used there. This approach can help you clear your head.
Narrative therapy is a different way to remember an event and remember details. You tell your life story from the beginning. You can fit the traumatic events in the gaps.
The traumatic memories are anchored to a specific time and place by this method. Those threats can become something that is past and not present. Some of the power of those memories can be erased by confiding them in your narrative.
Lining up your experiences can help you see traumatic moments in a different way. Context can change what you remember.
Narrative therapy in action
Say an abusive marriage caused you a lot of heartache.
Narrative therapy doesn’t dismiss that pain, or its impact on your life. Instead, it puts that relationship in the context of all the times other people cared for you, admired you, and appreciated you.
Consequently, your memories of the abusive marriage can become examples of one person’s cruelty, not a reflection of your overall likability and value.
When you first start NET, your therapist may explain how therapy works and give you more information about how trauma affects the brain.
The narrative exposure process begins from there.
- You’ll begin at the beginning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll start this narrative in your early years, moving through your childhood and adolescence before you hit the events of adulthood.
- You’ll focus on the time involving traumatic experiences. If you have childhood trauma, you’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about your early years. But if all your trauma stems from a famine you survived in your 40s, you might summarize most of your childhood and fast-forward to middle age.
- You’ll revisit traumatic events. Your therapist may ask you to recall these experiences in detail. As you describe the event, they’ll offer support with helping lower physical stress symptoms and keeping painful emotions to a manageable level. In short, they act as a mental “lifeguard,” so to speak, ready to pull you out if you find yourself in too deep.
- You’ll review the details with your therapist. After each session, your therapist creates a transcript of the story so far. In the next session, they may review the transcript with you to make sure they got everything right and add any details you missed on the first telling.
These controlled exposures to the memory can help your body unlearn its fight-or-flight reaction to various trauma triggers, plus give your brain another chance to store the memory correctly.
You will repeat the exposure process with your therapist. In the final session, you and the therapist will discuss where your story will go next.
Your therapist can give you the complete autobiography when therapy ends.
STAIR narrative therapy
When childhood trauma leads to disrupted social and emotional development, an approach called Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR) narrative therapy can help you learn to better manage emotions and communicate more effectively.
STAIR narrative therapy, which combines narrative therapy and skills training, usually lasts around 16 weeks.
The sessions usually unfold as follows.
- Sessions 1-2: You’ll practice identifying and expressing your emotions.
- Sessions 3-4: You’ll learn coping strategies to navigate unwanted emotions.
- Sessions 5-8: You’ll practice skills for communicating assertively and building healthy relationships.
- Sessions 9-16: You’ll proceed with narrative work, adding emotional coping strategies as needed.
This approach may be helpful to both adolescents and adults who have been abused.
Narrative exposure therapy is an effective approach for treating post traumatic stress disorder.
What’s more, NET seemed more effective than non-trauma-focused interventions. Controlled trials comparing NET with other trauma-focused interventions remain limited, and experts continue to explore how NET stacks up to other trauma-focused therapy approaches.
NET vs. prolonged exposure therapy
Researchers have compared NET to prolonged exposure therapy, which experts currently recognize as a gold-standard treatment for PTSD. In this modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you expose yourself to memories, activities, and places linked to your trauma with guidance and support from a therapist.
In a 2014 review comparing the two approaches, researchers emphasize that both can help address trauma. Yet while prolonged exposure therapy appears highly effective as a treatment for PTSD, NET may prove more beneficial for treating CPTSD, particularly among They are refugees.and people seeking asylum.
NET has other potential benefits.
- Low dropout rates. Most people complete the entire treatment.
- Length. You may notice improvement after as few as four sessions.
- Convenience. Therapists can use this approach in person or remotely. It also requires no “therapy homework” on your part.
- Your biography. Your therapist organizes and writes your life story for you to keep.
NET was developed to help people with CPTSD, or people who have survived traumatic events.
CPTSD could affect.
- They are refugees.
- People are displaced by political violence.
- The prisoners of war.
- People who have survived torture.
- survivors of childhood abuse and neglect
- People who have been survivors of relationship abuse.
If you have reached the twilight of your lifespan, you may have more memories to sort through. It is possible to reflect on your life and legacy when you tell your life story repeatedly.
STAIR narrative therapy doesn’t just treat CPTSD
AIR narrative therapy was created to address childhood trauma. This approach can help treat trauma.
According to 2015 research, STAIR narrative therapy helped reduce distress and improve social and emotional functioning among survivors of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.
Interested in giving narrative therapy for trauma a try? You’ll want to start by finding a therapist you can trust.
If you hold back details or censor parts of your life in therapy, you are not giving the full story needed for therapy to have the intended effect.
No mental health professional should criticize your choices or pass judgment on any events from your life. Therapists are there to offer unbiased guidance and compassionate support.
If you don’t get a sense you can trust your therapist, don’t hesitate to continue shopping around for someone who seems like a better fit for your needs.
You can find narrative therapists using online directories.
- The APA is a psychologist locator.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs has a program for post traumatic stress disorder.
- The Therapist Directory of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.
Narrative therapy is a specialty for some mental health professionals. You may need to contact them and inquire about narrative therapy if they only describe themselves as trauma therapists.
When you do find a trauma therapist, just know you aren’t limited to narrative therapy alone. Treatment for PTSD can involve more than one type of treatment, especially if you have co-occurring conditions like depression.
Your therapist can offer more guidance with the approach that best fits your needs.
You can learn more about your options.
Narrative therapy can’t change the past, but it can help you get a clearer perspective of it.
The story of your trauma can help you shift how you view your memories and how they affect you in the present.
The trauma will be part of your story. You can decide how the story is told and what happens next.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.