The Recovery Game

Paul was lying in bed and feeling bored. He longed to feel well again. “Can’t someone do something to speed things up?” he asked. “It just takes time,” came the answer. “Although there is a computer game… unfortunately we don’t have it, but I’m sure you can imagine it… it works like this; your body’s police force is on patrol, searching for criminals in the blood vessels and throughout the entire body. The police officers look like large spheres, with eyes and sharp teeth. The criminals are little spheres which try to hide. When a police officer has eaten five of the little spheres, he has enough health points to split into two police officers. Then they hunt as a team of two, and soon as a team of four, eight and so on. The game can be played at different speeds, and of course the aim is to make the police officers as fast as possible while still catching all the criminals without whizzing past any by mistake. If you’re successful, you can set it to go even faster. The game has ten different skill levels, and you should make sure that you start on a level where you have a good chance of winning. The final thing which is important to know is that the game has a sophisticated graphical design which means that you can choose how it looks. The police officers can whizz through the body’s blood vessels – both the small ones and the large ones – or through a kind of sewerage system which looks like a large and complicated system of water slides. They can roll like marbles along a marble run with lifts and moving staircases, or they can travel at supersonic speed in spaceships zooming through the air in a huge intergalactic system of tunnels. Choose the version you’d like to play first, and press the start button – now!”

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“The Recovery Game” demonstrates how the immune system can be strengthened through suggestion during a time of illness; it can also be used (in slightly modified form) to prevent illness. The story is one of a whole genre of therapeutic stories which involve inventing computer games or similar games of skill, and which can be designed to boost performance at school, to increase self-confidence or for many other purposes. They are ideal for use with children and young people in the context of joint storytelling.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

The Way to the Meadow

Imagine that you’re in a cold, clear place on a winter’s day. You take deep, calm breaths and enjoy the crisp, fresh air. Time passes, and now it’s spring. Keep breathing steadily and carry the pleasant sense of calm with you. Imagine that you’re breathing deeply, calmly and with pleasure, since you know that you’re safe now and will remain safe. It does you good to breathe so calmly and peacefully. Imagine that it’s spring, and you’re walking in a meadow past blossoming birch trees with the same sense of calm and the same deep breaths, and perhaps you’re even surprised that you feel so good. You breathe deeply and steadily. You feel no fear, and you enjoy this feeling. Imagine walking up to a birch tree, and having the wonderful idea of hugging it – and behold, it is very good.

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A method of systematically desensitising hay fever through hypnotic suggestion can also be found in Hans A. Abraham, based however on the medicinal desensitisation of allergies, i.e. an unreal placebo, rather than the desensitisation of phobias. Gibbons suggests that the very small quantities of pollen present in the air or on objects during the colder months of the year act as a desensitising vaccination for the client. Abraham 1990.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

A Jarful of Allergies

Imagine that the histamines triggered by your allergy are all stored in a glass jar. How big is the jar? What shape is it? What do the histamines look like? Are they in powder or liquid form? Do they look like small creatures, or maybe like a fog? How full is the jar? And how empty would you like it to be? Remember that your body can produce more of these substances whenever you need them. If you’d like the jar to be completely empty, take it to a place where you can tip out the histamines. Notice the movements of your hands while you are emptying the jar. Whenever you make a similar movement, you’ll remember – either consciously or unconsciously – how you tipped out the histamines. And every time you remember, you’ll feel safer and safer, and you’ll know for sure; I used to need my allergy, but I don’t any more.

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“A Jarful of Allergies” outlines a method of metaphorically instructing the body to cure an allergy.

The story is inspired by the story of an eleven-year-old girl who had learned self-hypnosis reported by Karen Olnes and Dan Kohen. The girl once asked, “Can hypnosis also help with hay fever?” The immune response which causes hay fever was then explained to her in medical terms. “She gave the very logical response, ‘So I need to hypnotise myself to keep the histamines in the mast cells and not allow them into the bloodstream?” Somewhat surprised by this matterof-fact analysis, I [the doctor treating her] agreed. She thanked me and left. Several months later, Sarah’s mother told me that her daughter’s symptoms of hay fever were mild despite the high pollen count, and that the swelling of her eyes and mucous membranes was so minor that she no longer needed any medication.” (Olness & Kohen 2001,266f.)

The end oft he story uses a quote of the hypnotherapist Maria Freund. Freund writes, “A few years ago I suffered from a severe allergy to early blossoming trees. The solution I found was to start taking a naturopathic remedy before the trees came into blossom, and at the same time to repeat the following sentence to myself like a mantra whenever I was outside, and in particular when I passed trees in blossom; ‘I used to need hay fever, but I don’t any more.’ It really worked, and after a while I only needed the sentence and could stop taking the naturopathic remedy. I didn’t experience any further symptoms in following years, and if I ever do feel a trace of anxiety again when I look at trees in blossom, I repeat the sentence to myself a few times in my head.” (E-mail message, 2008).Further stories and narrative interventions on allergies can be found in Hammel 2011, 70ff., Hammel, 2014, 80ff., 169ff., Hammel, 2016, 39, 43, 47ff., Hammel, 2017, 120f.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

Illness on Order

A doctor once told me, “Once I decided to spend part of my working day at home so that I could make headway on a mountain of paperwork. I hung a ‘Closed due to illness’ sign on the door of my practice – and fell ill straight away. Yesterday I told my daughter-in-law about it. ‘I know just what you mean,’ she said. ‘I fall ill every time you give me a sick note as a favour.’”

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The story “Illness on Order” illustrates how believing that “anyone who calls in sick must really be sick” can result in real illness, and how pretend or inconsequential illnesses can develop into real ones. The story can also be used as a metaphor for mental and social blocks.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

New publication: translation of my book

Learning Therapeutic Storytelling – The Essentials at a Glance

New release in May 2024

Back Cover Text
The book provides a hypnosystemically grounded introduction to therapeutic storytelling in medicine, child therapy, adult psychotherapy, couples therapy, family therapy, social work, pastoral care, education, coaching, supervision, and related professional fields.

Contents include
– The relevance of storytelling to therapy.
– Why, when, and how stories have therapeutic effects.
– Where I can use therapeutic stories.
– How to find the right story for the right moment.
– Structuring a therapeutic story.
– How to start and continue.
– Enhancing narrative skills.

About the Author
Stefan Hammel works as a systemic therapist, hypnotherapist, and author. He is also an protestant hospital and psychiatric chaplain, as well as the director of the Institute for Hypnosystemic Counseling in Kaiserslautern. Additionally, he serves as a lecturer for systemic and hypnotherapeutic training institutes in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He conducts seminars on Ericksonian hypnotherapy, therapeutic storytelling, systemic and hypnosystemic counseling. His main areas of focus include couple and family therapy, therapy for children and adolescents, depression, anxiety, trauma, end-of-life and grief counseling, as well as supporting somatic healing processes.

Risk of Contagion

I recently visited my sister and her family. Right at the start of my visit I took a drink of water out of a glass which was standing in front of me. “You didn’t drink out of that, did you?” asked my sister. “That glass belongs to Luise, and she’s highly contagious.” I bent over the glass and spat the following words into it; “Make sure you don’t catch the Stefan disease!” Then I drank all the water in the glass. And nothing else happened – at any rate not to me.

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A variation on the intervention in “Morbus Feivel” can be seen in the story “Risk of Contagion”. The story externalises the problematic bodily experience into the glass and gives implied instructions to the immune system to switch from a defensive to an offensive position

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

Morbus Feivel

The city of Chelm once became the breeding ground for a strange epidemic, and this is how it happened. So many people in the city were falling ill that Doctor Feivel thought to himself how much quicker and easier it would be to stop examining the city’s residents to find out what illness they were suffering from, and instead to find out who had been infected by health and what kind of health it was. He diagnosed healthy bones in a patient who had no broken legs, a healthy heart in another patient, a severe case of healthy skin in a third and so on. When Schlemihl came to see him, he diagnosed uninflamed health of the gums. When Schlemihl asked him what he meant, the doctor – who had already started examining his next patient – muttered, “Morbus Feivel, advanced stage of severity.” Schlemihl did not really understand what he meant, but did not wish to admit his ignorance and so did not query the diagnosis. When he arrived home and his wife asked him what the doctor had said, he answered curtly, “Infectious health.” Schlemihl’s wife wondered how it could be possible that she and the children still had a cold when they lived in such close quarters with Schlemihl. When she asked Doctor Feivel, he explained, “It’s because of the incubation time. The proper symptoms only appear a few days after transmission of an infection of this kind.” And by the next day Schlemihl’s wife and children were indeed feeling much better. “We’re suffering from infectious health,” they explained to their neighbours. “We caught it from Schlemihl.” The neighbours were also infected with health over the next few days, and soon Morbus Feivel had spread like wildfire throughout the entire city. Before long the residents of surrounding villages came to infect themselves with Schlemihl’s epidemic, and eventually the entire country was infected with it – at any rate according to Schlemihl’s version of the story.

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In my experience, anyone who regularly makes the apparently nonsensical claim that he or she is suffering from infectious health, as described in the story “Morbus Feivel”, is more likely to remain healthy during an outbreak of infectious disease. At the same time, some people appear to respond to the warning, “Watch out! I’m suffering from infectious health!” by recovering more rapidly from an illness. The story is based on a Polish-Jewish narrative tradition popularised by Isaak Bashevis Singer. (Singer, 1968. The idea of infectious health also appears in Hammel, 2012b, 51.)

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

The Eagle’s Journey

Imagine you’re an eagle flying over the Alps. You’re flying in the direction of the midday sun, towards the place where the land known to humans as Italy lies far behind vast mountain ranges. You can see towering mountain peaks and cavernous valleys. You pass through a storm, with flashes of lightning electrifying the air and squalls of wind making you flap your wings more vigorously. There is no question of coasting on air currents here – you need to use your wings, and you also need to use them to make it safely over the summit of the Bernina Pass. Once you are over the summit, the mountain peaks gradually get lower, and the weather gets calmer and more pleasant. As you fly onwards, the landscape turns into a patchwork of hills and then into a series of gentle undulations, before finally levelling out almost entirely. You reach the sea. Its waves are smooth and flat, and it stretches out before you like a giant mirror. You fly out over the open sea. For a long time you fly towards the rising sun, then again towards the midday sun, until you reach land again – the Sinai Peninsula, which is a desert. Once again you fly towards the rising sun, before finally catching sight of a broad and smooth expanse to your left – the Dead Sea, the calm surface of which is completely unbroken by waves. You fly there, towards an oasis you have spotted behind it. The Jordan River is small and surrounded by green trees and bushes. You alight on its bank and take a drink from its water, finding a shady branch to sit on if you like. Take a minute to look around. You are at the lowest point in the world. The calm, smooth mirror of the Dead Sea lies four hundred metres below sea level. Enjoy the peace and quiet as you sit on your branch, and take anything which has proved useful with you when you fly back home.

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The following story was designed and tested for the purpose of reducing and stabilising the pulse and blood pressure, and can also be used to stabilise a patient’s breathing rate at a low level and reduce the frequency, duration and intensity of muscle contractions, for example during premature labour. It is also suitable for reducing panic attacks; when used in this connection, the start of the story must be told in a flustered or panicky manner (principle of pacing and leading). In slightly modified form, the story can also be used for dental treatment, for example in connection with a dental phobia, in which case the eagle should see a chain of snow-capped mountains a long way off which might bear a vague resemblance to a row of teeth for some people, but the eagle has a sharp beak and is not worried about such things…

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

Steam Engines

Steam engines hold a particular fascination for many people and exert a special attraction over both young and old. Anyone who owns such a precious machine must handle it very carefully. The most important thing which a steam engine does is to regulate pressure. It is vitally important for the steam pressure valve to open in good time and reliably discharge any excess pressure. It is also important to ensure that steam engines are only heated to a moderate temperature, particularly if they are already well advanced in years. They need regular breaks, proper oiling and expert maintenance. It is a huge mistake to overheat a steam engine, and a mistake that will only be made by an amateur. A good technician knows what his treasured engine needs, and always drives it at a moderate pressure.

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The story “Steam Engines” can be used to regulate blood pressure and breathing and to reduce stress, as well as to equip patients to handle stressful emotions more easily.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)

Placebo II

“My feet often feel as cold as ice,” said the man. “That’s why I catch so many colds. I used to have Kneipp treatments and that really helped, but I can’t do that everywhere.” “Let me tell you a secret,” said the other man. “An imaginary Kneipp treatment will work just as well if you imagine it hard enough.”

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The case study “Placebo II” demonstrates a similar procedure for sluggish circulation, in which the patient imagines a Kneipp hydrotherapy treatment.

(From: Stefan Hammel: Handbook of Therapeutic Storytelling. Sories and Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Child and Family Therapy, Medical Treatment, Coaching and Supervision, Routledge 2019)