Improv as Therapy?!
The Mental Health Benefits of Improv
As humans, we crave community and genuine social connections, but oftentimes fear and anxiety can keep us from stepping outside of our comfort zones. While many students come to improv to build confidence, or improve their communication skills, for some, the benefits are much greater. Researchers and clinical psychologists are now finding that the learning process of improvisational comedy can provide numerous therapeutic benefits for students including:
Reducing anxiety, especially social anxiety The improv stage, in theory, is a space free of judgment or fear of failure, making it an ideal environment for people who struggle with low self-esteem, social anxiety, or other types of anxiety disorders. Performing improv functions as informal exposure therapy for people who struggle with social anxiety or fear of speaking in front of crowds. Social anxiety is all about inhibition and self-censorship, and improv redirects anxiety and self-protection to curiosity and creativity. To help people combat anxiety, we can put them in safe situations that provoke it. These positive experiences enhance an individual’s ability and desire to take risks.
Practicing radical acceptance Improv’s “yes, and” concept is built on the implicit promise that no idea will be shot down. “Yes” is an expression of complete acceptance. It is not about approval or judgment. It is an exercise in approaching the unknown from what is the opposite of fear and dread. It is a connection with what is and a radical acceptance of what is offered. To live in this positive, present mindset expands our field of awareness, so we can build on what is offered, to respond consciously and creatively. If “Yes” is an acknowledgement of what is, then “and” is how we shape the next step.
Expanding field of awareness The openness and receptivity generated by positive experiences expands the field of awareness that enhances our ability to make connections between ideas and make meaning. This translates into greater adaptability and resilience in the face of stress, and receptivity to ideas that we can use to shape our lives in new ways. The fact that we do it together heightens the likelihood we will absorb new information.
Building trust Improv aims to increase personal awareness, interpersonal attentiveness, and trust. The lack of planning and structure in improv means that performers must function without a safety net, but if all play authentically to each other, fear of failure loses its sting, as a net of support is constructed from openness, trust, and acceptance. The relationship among members of an improv ensemble hinges on trust.
The social, emotional, and cognitive engagement provided by improvisation experiences is an accessible way to reduce anxiety, practice radical acceptance, expand our field of awareness, and build trust. While co-creating an imagined reality with no script nor external direction nor guarantee of success, an improviser relies on a set of thinking and relationship skills that fine-tune the ability to communicate ideas clearly, rapidly assess what others are communicating and respond in ways that support and expand on those ideas. While improv is by no means a substitute for counseling or therapy, these experiences can teach us a mindset and toolkit for coping with the reality we share in daily life.