April 6, 2020

From Ana Hristić, MA, LCSW, Director of Education & Workforce Strategies, Trauma Informed Oregon

Human beings are meaning making machines —we are in a constant flow of narrating our experience, intrapersonally, interpersonally and organizationally. At a time of acute stress, this incredible power of meaning making and storying, becomes a healing and buffering agent. Story is the power to make sense of the senseless–to bridge the gap between the unimaginable and the real, the good and the bad. Story has the power to unite our felt experience of chaos into one coherent whole.

Language shapes experience,  so let’s consider ways we can promote the power of storying, thus inviting our brains and physiology to remain present and responsive rather than reactive. This video is 11:02 minutes.

Hi, my name is Ana Hristić and I am the Director of Education and Workforce Strategy at Trauma Informed Oregon. I hope you’re all doing well. I’m coming to you from northeast Portland and I wanted to share the third of a series of videos that we are putting out to facilitate conversation dialogue resource sharing related to the topic of trauma informed care and workforce wellness during time of incident response.

Maya Angelou said quote “There is no greater agony than burying an untold story inside you.” “There is no greater agony than burying an untold story inside you.” What I’d like to do today is actually unpack the incredible power and beauty of this quote that really points us in the direction of the buffering power of story. The buffering power of meaning making during the time of incident response. So as we did before in the previous videos, we’ll be looking at what we know about trauma and toxic stress to unfold how story, and even languaging, can serve as a buffer during our experience of stress.

As in the previous videos we’ll look at the lens of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational levels so to really make this topic area applicable in a way that at the end you can take it and really examine it for yourself personally, for the relationships that you uphold with your colleagues and your dear ones, and then of course in the name of trauma informed care, for the ways in which your programs or organizations can support and uplift policies and procedures that are related to the experience of sharing story and meaning making.

Human beings are meaning making machines really, right? On an intrapersonal level we’re in a constant flow of narrating our experience, of writing stories about our past, about our present, about our future. At a time of acute stress this incredible power of meaning making and storying becomes a healing agent, really. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, “The land-“, excuse me, “The last of human freedoms is that ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” “The last of human freedoms is that ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

He goes on to say that emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as a form of a clear and precise picture is made of it. Suffering ceases to be suffering at a moment it finds meaning. It concludes by underscoring that our ultimate freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but it is a freedom to take a stand toward the conditions. I’ll just repeat that line one last time. So that our ultimate freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions, and what I’d like to suggest to you is that one way we take that stand, in the midst of our experience of stress and in some cases toxic stress, is through storying.

What are you noticing about the story that you’re weaving about your experience of this incident response time? In what ways can you reclaim your voice and the narrative of this experience and write a story of your choosing? This is the time to invite our imagination and our imaginative capacities online. So as to invite our full brain online, right? The areas of our

brain that are fully available to us at a time of imagination and creativity and storying are the very areas that will help us during this time of stress response.
Are you anything like me and notice that your story changes from day to day, or hour to hour, or really moment to moment? One day it’s a story of triumph. Another day it’s a story of terror. Another day it’s a story of just heart-wrenching grief and fear. And then, on a particular hour, it’s a story of connection and beauty and celebration. At a time of incident response, story is the power to make sense of the senseless. It is the power to bridge the gap between the unimaginable and the actual, the good and the bad, the terror and the triumph.

Story has the power to unite our felt experience of chaos into one coherent whole, so that no pieces of our experience is left behind or fragmented. What we know is that language shapes experience and that words do have power. So what language are you using toward yourself in your experience these days? On an interpersonal level have you noticed how contagious stories are? I mean, maybe we’d call them rumors or gossip, but really stories are what we use, and relays our culture and our interpersonal community. It is a way of transmission. Stories are contagious.When shared with each other they leave us with feelings, and questions, and reactions, and felt experiences.

The story is really a gift to another of the person’s experience. So, who are you surrounding yourself with these days? With all the quote-unquote social distancing that’s happening, that we’re still in relationship with one another, with messages, with stories. Whose stories are you listening to these days? What is the dominant narrative that you are interacting with, in relationship with, these days? To be present to another is to be present to their story and to their meaning of that felt experience. How can we break through the silence and the sort of political correctness and actually listen? Listen to each other’s stories of our experiences these days. Can we create space for each other at the next phone call, at the next colleague check-in, to truly hear the story?

Finally, on an organizational or programmatic level, it’s important to unpack the ways in which historically and traditionally stories have held wisdom, and yet many of our current ways of doing business, if you will, especially at a time of crisis, seem to not allow for the time and space for stories to be told, for stories to be shared. There is a real danger in that. Just as there is a danger in a sort of parallel process way of not supporting storying and play for a young child who has experienced the unthinkable. The danger of that child’s fragmentation, of sense of self, of assuming someone else’s truth as their own, of the incredible silence of shame and blame, of the ultimate danger of burying the untold story that Maya Angelou spoke about.

So there’s a real danger in organizationally and programmatically not leaving room for stories of felt experiences to be shared. There’s a danger of a single story, right? The danger of creating a homogenous experience and a uniform message about how people should feel during a time, right? About the ways in which we welcome certain stories and leave out others. That perpetuates oppression, and abuse of power, and exclusion. It is a misuse of power to be the one driving the message in the narration of an organization’s story. This is the time allow for people’s individual stories to weave a collective one. Story in this way can serve as a container

for all of human experience on your team, and thus can be a fruitful place for connection, empowerment, creativity, allyship.

So, what are you promoting through your procedures and practices on an organizational level when it comes to story and meaning making? How are you supporting a return of the voice, the voice of the people, the voice of the collective? Where are we sharing the power? Where are we sharing the power to declare something an emergency or a priority? So this week we invite you to follow the trail of hearing the power of story. Follow the trail of the healing power of story and narrative during this time. Let’s support and uphold all the ways, the intrapersonal ways, interpersonal ways, and organizational ways. All the ways in which meaning-making is captured, shared, and transformed moment by moment. It’s not one story. It’s many stories. Story at a time of stress can serve both as a preventative, thus, can serve prevention, intervention, and postvention.

So, let’s share our stories below. Share your stories intrapersonally, interpersonally, and organizationally. Share the strategies that uphold and uplift the buffering power of story for you.