By Mohsin Mohi ud Din, Founder of #MeWe International Inc.
This article was originally published by UNHCR on May 18, 2018.
Today, science shows us how stress and trauma impact our physical bodies and even genetics.
But there is a layer that science still needs to penetrate when it comes to understanding how narrative therapy and storytelling can support a person’s mental health and inner resilience. Also, how do stress and trauma reshape–or not– the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves?
But let’s step back from a second. Why are we even talking about stories and narratives in the first place? Stories remain humankind’s carrier of moments, histories, and futures that either expand or clog our mental and physical pathways for connecting the mind with the heart and our breath. This consequently shapes how we treat ourselves and others.
At an anecdotal level, in our global storytelling work with youth, we see the physical and mental impacts of a young person who grows up under an arrested narrative: one where a person leaves their life’s narrative to be written by moments and circumstances imposed by everyone and everything but him or herself.
It is our hypothesis with MeWe – our innovative storytelling programme – that an arrested narrative of oneself fuels an arrested development marked by:
- a persistent disconnection of mind, heart, and breath
- higher levels of stress and anxiety, and disassociation from the present
- challenges in being empathetic, communicating needs, collaborating with others
- limited capacities for being aware of one’s senses and inner resiliency assets
If true, this is not only a tragedy and a missed opportunity for the person affected, it is a loss for their family, for their community, and for our world.
Our counter-narrative to this would be that discovering and reclaiming control of one’s own narrative can activate a person to build inner resilience, self-awareness, empathy, as well as enhanced capacities for collaboration and positive relationships. Each year in #MeWe, we are seeing growing evidence of narrative’s role in activating behavioural changes in our beneficiaries.
What can stories do?
MeWe believes that the process–not the product–of storytelling and communication gives exercise to critical skills needed for youth to be healers and community-builders: leadership, collaboration, empathy, and creative problem solving–all ingredients for sustainable peace and development. The MeWe storytelling methodology, now being self-replicated by refugee youth in their communities, attempts to sync neuroscience, media literacy, and psychology into a single program that activates youth to literally and figuratively re-author their lives as Changemakers.
The body of research for storytelling’s role in behavioural development is nascent, but there are a number of pioneers coming up with some fascinating studies connecting neuroscience, storytelling, and psychology.
Dr. Uri Hanson, neuroscientist and researcher with Princeton University, has been demonstrating through brain scans how a storyteller’s words can shape the brain activity of listeners. According to his research, words and stories can stimulate neural coupling, where the same regions of the brain can be activated from the teller to the listener. In other words, empathy is not just a nice word, it is something physical and biological in our brains and body chemistry.
According to neurobiologist Paul Zak, stories actually influence brain chemistry. In various studies, Dr. Zak’s research has shown that stories of a particular structure can trigger the release of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which is associated with connectedness, and by some empathy. Certain narratives also were found to be linked to the release of the stress hormone, ‘cortisol’, in listeners.
Psychologist David Yeager’s research with U.S. high school students is showing how light narrative therapy exercises associated with reading and writing are effective coping tools for stressed students. His narrative interventions involve students accessing knowledge about how change is possible; then students write personal stories about overcoming stressful situations for younger students to read. The intervention’s data shows reduced cortisol levels and cardiovascular reactivity compared to the study’s control group.
There is also the widely held theory that what has kept our species alive has been our unique ability to form networks for social cooperation, which most likely would not have been possible without our ability to imagine shared experiences and transcendent purposes that unite a people. Dr. Yuval Hariri beautifully articulates this point when he writes that from the beginning of the cognitive revolution, communication among homo sapiens shifted how our species survived, “The survival of objective reality now depends on the grace of imagined realities.”
Shared experiences, social cooperation, goal-setting, and knowledge sharing have no mobility if not for stories and narrative. This has helped our species to survive because stories require us to maintain a universal truth: all of us possess the ability to change. Dr. Daniel Amen, who has analysed more than 83,000 brain scans, and reports that his number one takeaway is “We can change our brains. You are not stuck with the brain you were born with.”
This truth carries promise for all youth work and humanitarian work because it proves humankind’s ability to create change. This means we can heal one another, just as much as we can destroy one another.
Discover | Reclaim | Unleash
“Neuroscience research shows that the only we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience, and to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” (Van der Kolk)
The journey of the #MeWe methodology follows three stages: Discovery of shared experiences; Reclaiming control of the narrative; Unleashing change. Each module in this framework follows a deeper three-stage process of:
- Mental observation and self-discovery
- Actively reclaiming control of narrative by writing/drawing/media literacy
- Unleashing me to we through peer to peer sharing, active listening, digital storytelling
In the mental observation portion of the program, we run through mindfulness practices where we explore our breaths as a gateway to observe–not filter—the stories inside of us. Our breaths—past, present, and future– carry the stories we tell ourselves and don’t tell ourselves. These stories shape our self-awareness and emotions.
For some, the concept of exploring what our future breaths will do and what our past breaths have experienced triggered anger and frustration and anxiety.
One participant in Zaatari refugee camp shared that “I see loss and pain when I close my eyes. I must keep my eyes open and adapt to what is around me….the future is uncertain, and causes discomfort.”
For others, it was an opportunity for self-discovery. After running through the exercise once, we then included the breathing and reflection exercise as a daily practice to start and end each day, so that incremental goal-setting at the beginning of the day, and reflection at the end of the day became more digestible for participants.
“Being aware of your emotional state each day, and having a start and end point in your day’s goals–we feel psychological rest. I try and keep close positive memories and songs, so I feel how I used to be.” says Mohammad, after going through the exercise in Zaatari refugee camp.
The intention of starting each intervention with quiet ‘visual reflection’ is to routinely exercise activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with judgment and critical thinking, and connectedness. Frequent exploration of one’s mind and body would build comfort and confidence with exploring one’s own ideas, emotions, and stories.
Reclaiming control of your narrative
Before participants engage in a series of individual and collaborative storytelling exercises for writing and video blogging, we walk them through concepts about how the brain works, and how trauma and stress impact the brain and body. Through interactive modules, co-designed with neuroscientist Michael Niconchuk from Beyond conflict— participants reflect, write, act out, and share scenarios of self-written stories where the characters are the brain, or one of their senses–like sight. The brain or sense characters encounter a negative trigger or challenge, that then must be overcome. Such an approach borrows from narrative therapy, in which the participant and his/her problem have a cognitive distance which allows for self-awareness and creative problem-solving.
Such exercises reinforce the psychological concept of interoception (sense of the physiological condition of the body), and support youth to discover where they feel stories and words, and recognise their bodily states. In another exercise, youth perform a self-audit of their own resilience assets accessible in self-defined moments of chaos and stress. Once identified and shared peer to peer, participants take the positive and negative triggers and formulate a hero’s journey narrative in the form a letter they will keep for themselves in the future.
Across three countries, the majority of our refugee teams replicating MeWe identified the following modules to be the most impactful for youth:
- Learning about the fast and slow systems of the brain
- Learning how trauma impacts the connection between mind and body
- Authoring hero’s journeys about their brains and future selves
Initial feedback from refugee youth hubs to #MeWeSyria, Ashoka, and Beyond Conflict indicate that what youth respond to the most is knowledge about how our own minds and bodies are capable of change. This is foundation resilience and health.
Peer to peer sharing and putting empathy to action
Across each medium of communication–the mind, the paper, and group sharing–one’s stories/ideas transform a bit. In each one, the participant is exercising awareness of their senses, exploring their emotions and imaginations, and connecting their inner emotions and stories to the physical networks around them.
Peer to peer sharing is a crucial element of our methodology as relationship building and creative collaboration remain essential to healing. One way we perform group shares is by giving the option of participants to read their own story themselves to the rest of the group, or the teller selects someone else to read their story for them. Having someone else read your story for you allows for the writer to have distance from their own story and observe it more deeply from another perspective.
Another tactic is having the audience physically show empathy and active listening by standing across from the teller and taking one step towards the teller any time they feel a connection or emotion to something being shared. With later stage exercises, we encourage the recording of video blogs, where participants exercise looking at themselves on camera, hearing their own voice played back to them and practicing message delivery on camera. For many past participants, this would be the first time they are about to hit the record button, and it is an incredible symbolic moment of pushing a button to give oneself permission to unleash their feelings and ideas.
“In sharing with a group, I began to really explain myself in a different way. Before, I was not able to share my story honestly because I was only sharing with myself on the inside. I was doing this for one year,” a Syrian woman expressed at our recent training in Lebanon.
After sharing his story, another participant in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan said, “There is a relief when someone understands you.”
Future to Present
Building upon the discoveries and stories they discovered and unleashed in the ‘Heart’s Maze’, ‘Brain Story’, and ‘Power of Why’ exercises, participants write a hero’s story where they are the protagonist. In this case, they are writing from months or years in the future to themselves in the present time.
The exercise offers an opportunity for ‘Goal-Setting’, which is part of #MeWeSyria’s therapeutic core, in addition to ‘Control’ and ‘Interoception’. After doing a free write, participants are then encouraged to formulate one action they can take to help bring the future one step closer to the present.
“In my own life, I have never been so courageous,” one female participant says. She is astonished by herself and what she was able to unleash and record. While she admits she is uncomfortable watching her ‘Power of Why’ video blog till this day, she still references and watches her ‘Future to Present’ video blog from 10 months ago as a motivator and reminder of the goal-setting narrative she began to craft for her life’s story.
Meera, normally a quiet and shy participant, recently shared a piece of her future to present story to the group inside Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan:
“My voice is louder. My eyes are wider. I find things in me I didn’t know were there… You will never be you unless you feel yourself, and love yourself.”
Through the refugee-led platform and methodology of #MeWeSyria, Beyond Conflict, and Ashoka’s Youth Venture are exploring ways to reframe the relationship between neuroscience and storytelling.
We are increasingly observing how refugee youth can ripple positive change in their communities if youth are given access to the right knowledge, followed up with safe opportunities to exercise this knowledge, specifically when it comes to accessing: the science of trauma and stress and its impact on the body; how the brain works and how it reacts to language and stories; the role of language and communication healing and changemaking.
As the Syrian war continues into its seventh year, 15, 20, and 40-year-old refugees are increasingly put in positions where they feel a need to provide some level of psychosocial support to their friend, their parents, or their siblings. With support from partners such as Beyond Conflict and Ashoka’s Youth Venture, it is our aim to create new tools and materials that make inaccessible scientific knowledge available and useful for youth communities who desperately can benefit from it.
Fresh tools are needed for effectively measuring the impacts of narrative therapy and communications on the social and emotional development of a young person.
Since October 2016, we tried piloting iterations of a psychometric scale–a pre and post assessment– measuring for empathy, problem-solving capacities, and perceived stress and situational control. Data was gathered from more than 200 refugee youth participants. Findings indicated promising patterns in enhanced capacities for empathy and perceived stress and situational control. However, the scale also showed a lot of inconsistencies and gaps within the respondent’s answers.
We discovered that this was in large part due to lack of investment/resources in co-creating the questionnaires with our youth communities, and there was a critical need to properly train the communities on the ground implementing the scale so that they had a comfortability with the scientific concepts associated with each measure in our scale.
I now realise that the premise for why we measure should be co-created and driven by youth beneficiaries of a program—not funders or organisations.
Thanks in part to support from UNHCR Innovation Service, we have been working with neuroscientists and M+E experts–such as Mike Niconchuk from Beyond Conflict and Mallory Feldman– to refine our impact assessment tools in the process, working alongside affected communities to unpack, reframe, and translate questionnaires on affect labeling, alexithymia, cognitive flexibility, empathy, and other correlations of psychological resilience.
Since January 2017, Syrian youth teams have replicated the program to more than 600 mothers, children, disabled children, street children, and teenage Syrians across eight cities in three countries. In this recent stage, we now have a proof of concept for how Syrian teachers and Syrian youth facilitators can mobilise and reach younger refugees with an innovation as powerful as MeWe. Having just returned back from co-creation sessions with our refugee teams, we are seeing an increased demand to scale the storytelling methodology and community-based MHPSS toolkit being co-authored with Beyond Conflict. We are also excited the refugee hubs for the next five months will reach another 300 youth, with more planned for the rest of the year. We are excited to continue working with partners like the UNHCR Innovation Service to further support and celebrate these brave and dedicated young changemakers.
#MeWeSyria is a program of #MeWe International Inc. This article reflects learnings and insights from our recent #MeWeSyria missions in Jordan and Lebanon, co-led by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din (Founder of #MeWe International Inc.) and Michael Niconchuk (Beyond Conflict). #MeWeSyria is both a methodology and youth platform built in collaboration with local community-building NGOs (such as DARB and Questscope) and technical partners like Beyond Conflict. #MeWeSyria 2017-2018 is being made possible thanks to UNHCR’s Innovation Service, and the Ford Foundation, Open Ideo, and DFAT Innovation Exchange.