How Does Improv Help with Anxiety?

I get asked that question all the time. People are curious, intrigued, and a little too polite to ask what they really wanted to ask, which is, “Does improv help with anxiety?”

Because to be honest, I don’t know how much we care about the how. It’s like cell phones. Don’t care how they work, just as long as I have mobile access to cat videos.

If I said I invented a machine that helps you travel through time you might politely say, “Interesting, how does it work?” In other words, I’m very skeptical, and I’d need to see just a little bit of proof, or I’m calling bullshit.

But if I said I invented a machine to help with anxiety, sure you might be skeptical, but depending on how desperate you are to be free of anxiety, you might just skip to, “Great! Hook me up!”

Anyway, to answer the question you didn’t ask, yes, improv does help with anxiety. 

“Interesting, how does it work?”

I get it, you want proof. Why? ‘Cause improv seems scary as hell.

If I said eating cake helps with anxiety, you might be through your second cake before stopping to think, “Wait… how?” then shrugging and going back to eating. #deliciousselfimprovement.

But if I said skydiving from space helps with anxiety, it becomes, “I’d need to see a little more evidence before fully committing to this plan.” Improv feels closer to that one.

 i mean, cake does help. 

i mean, cake does help. 

If it puts you at ease at all, the idea of improv is scary. Improv itself is way less so. When you’re doing it, it’s actually fun. (Fun like the space dive scenario?)

Before we move on, I just wanna quickly make sure we’re talking about the same thing by explaining what improv is. Or isn’t.

It isn’t stand-up comedy. Some people confuse the two. Main difference is, you’re not alone in improv. You build ideas together with at least one other person (who you can share the blame with if it sucks). With stand-up, you’re working towards crafting a really funny joke. In improv, if the stories you build together are funny, great! But often what makes them funny is the unpolishedness and mistakes.  

The idea of making mistakes in front of people sounds genuinely scary, and me saying it isn’t probably won’t change your mind. Because when it comes down to it, fear isn’t persuaded by logic. You can tell me planes are the safest form of travel, but that doesn’t help me not picture going down in a flaming ball of terror. Now that I’ve said all that, here’s some stuff to try and sell you on improv.

First up, science. The idea of improv helping with anxiety is fairly new. Which means it’s still early in the research phase. Results are good so far (here’s one study by Kristin Krueger), but there’s probably not enough scientific evidence yet to really persuade someone either way. Still it’s exciting, and there are many more studies to come. (Some I’ve even been a part of.)

Next up, personal experience. Some of you know me and my story, some not so much. (Though a quick Google search of anyone will always let you know too much.) Long story short, I’m proof. I’m evidence. I was anxious for decades, tried a bunch of stuff, then took improv, and now I’m not. It wasn’t the only thing that helped, but it was a big one. I wouldn’t be wasting your time with this post, or wasting my students’ time in classes, if I didn’t truly believe in it.

But I’m pretty biased. So ask around. Find people who’ve taken improv and ask them. Not just the anxiety classes, any improv. I’ve seen it help people go from being too scared to enter the classroom, to performing on a giant stage in front of hundreds of people (including friends and family). Google around. (This is basically an ad for Google.)

When it comes down to it, it’s hard to talk you into doing something that seems terrifying. I only took my first improv class because I felt suicide was my other option. And I spent longer than you’d think doing a pros and cons list for both. I eventually decided I was more scared of suicide, so I took an improv class. And now I’m not anxious. But how?!

Okay, this was all to get you open to the idea that improv can help with anxiety. Now to answer the original question… Improv helped me in two ways, The Work and The Play.

THE WORK

 Just one shelf's-worth. He bragged. Through tears. 

Just one shelf's-worth. He bragged. Through tears. 

If you take an improv class to help with anxiety, chances are you’re there to get better. Seems pretty obvious. You’re anxious and you’re hoping the class will make you less anxious, or not anxious at all (if you believe that’s even a possibility).

It’s the same reason we read self-help books and go to therapy and do meditation and write down our thoughts and breathe deeper and snap elastics on our wrists and all the things we do to try and make anxiety go away. It’s “The Work.”

Improv is a great chance to do the work in a fun way.

Acceptance

Improv is built around the idea of “Yes, and…” The “Yes” part is simply agreeing to each other’s ideas. When we’re building a world together out of nothingness and imagination, it helps that if I say we’re dragons, you agree that we’re dragons. In other words, you accept that reality.

I kept reading stuff like “accept yourself as you are” but I hated myself and was scared that if I accepted myself as I was, I’d be stuck that way, or lose motivation to change/fix myself. But acceptance is just saying “Yes” to this moment. Is my body this way right now? Yes. Is my mind the way it is right now? Yes. Is my job/relationship/financial situation/cat video addiction the way it is right now? Yes. I’m accepting reality. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change it going forward. Just that fighting against this moment is a waste of time and energy.

Stay present

Speaking of saying “Yes” to this moment, I had read all about being in the now, and would consciously try to do it (despite the fact that you can’t physically leave the now – as Hale Dwoskin says, if you don’t believe it, try it some time).

But it wasn’t long before I’d be back to future-thinking and daydreaming about a version of me who could be present, and how happy he was, or will be.

In improv, you go line-by-line with a scene partner. So you don’t have time to think about “Where is this going?” or “What do I do next?” Because you’re focused on listening to your partner right now to find out. It’s like having a conversation where instead of waiting for your turn to talk, you have to listen to find out what you’re going to say next.

Mitsakes are gifts

Anxiety is built a lot around judgement. We judge ourselves to keep ourselves safe from ridicule. If I’m perfect, then people have nothing to judge me on. So I’ll judge myself constantly to make sure I’m always perfect. It’s exhausting.

Improv loves failure. When things go “wrong” the most fun and funny happens in the scene. It shifts your mind into a jester mentality, where when you act silly and people laugh you see they’re not laughing at you, but because of you. Your silliness brightened their day!

Putting others first

Brightening someone else’s day becomes something you care about. Anxiety requires you to think about yourself. How do I look/feel/think right now? Constantly checking in. In improv, your attention has to shift focus to someone else. Your job is to take care of your scene partner. Make them look good. When you really focus on someone else, it’s a nice break from thinking about (constantly judging) yourself. 

Anxiety can be very isolating and lonely, and it was nice to bond with classmates. Being silly and vulnerable together creates a feeling of trust, and leads to new friendships. The majority of my friends now are from the improv community.  

I could go on and on. The “and” part of “Yes, and” is about sharing your voice instead of being too scared that your ideas and opinions are wrong. With improv characters you get to wear a mask and do silly things you might be too scared to try. You also get to move around and shift your body and do mind-body connection stuff. And you play characters who can feel things - I had numbed myself in real life, because I thought emotions were bad - and be okay with that. (This is me not going on and on.)

Basically, any self-help therapy stuff I was learning, I was seeing the connection to improv.

Just being able to make a mistake without beating myself up about it for weeks was huge! I was doing the work and growing from it. But looking back, the key was that I wasn’t aware that I was doing the work.

Doing the work is great. Doing the work without being consciously aware you’re doing the work? Well, that’s something else completely. Segue!

THE PLAY

 "Adults" playing. 

"Adults" playing. 

If you take an improv class to help with anxiety, chances are you’re there to get better. Seems pretty obvious. But wanting to be better than you are right now, is a judgement that you’re not good enough right now. Wanting to be better will never end, and no matter how hard you work, there will always be more work.

I saw anxiety as a problem I had to fix. I needed to get better, and that meant working at getting better. So I’d wake up and do the work. Meditation, self-help books, seminars, CDs (pre-podcast days), you name it, I tried that technique. My plan was to do that every second of every day, 24/7 until I got better. 

But the idea of always striving towards “better” is what broke me. Instead of becoming anxiety-free, I was simply spending all day focused on what was wrong and what needed to be fixed and what was shitty. And because it was all I focused on, it was all I saw and thought about. Shit, shit, shit. I felt like shit. Life is shit. So I worked even harder. Until I hit rock bottom.

Fighting anxiety is exhausting. It’s a constant battle to stay sane and appear sane. And you’re scared to let up the fight even for a second, because if you do, the enemy will take advantage of that moment and start winning again.

You say jumping from space will help? Great! It’s gotta be better than this.

But improv threw me a curveball. Because it allowed me to do the work without doing the work. In other words, it gave me a break. A vacation from the full-time job that was fixing myself. Like any exhausting job, I just needed some time off. I needed to laugh for the first time in years. I needed to be silly and not treat everything like it’s super serious and the Most Important Thing Ever. Including anxiety. I needed to take it down off its pedestal.

This, to me, was what changed everything.

I had walked into that first improv class to help with my anxiety. To help fix the problem of my anxiety and get better. But instead, I got a break. Instead of “fixing” a “problem,” it was laughing and playing. Instead of focusing on my problems, I was running around and acting goofy. It wasn’t a break because I knew a break would help me grow. It was just a break. When I walked in the door of that improv class, I was okay not growing, or achieving, or getting better, or being less anxious for the next three hours. Instead, it was “I’m just gonna be who I am right now and play with that. After class, I can go back to work. But for now, let’s just have fun.”

And in that moment, I enjoyed life.

And that moment IS life.

 Me at the office. 

Me at the office. 

I used to see anxiety as a problem because it was destroying my life. And problems are solved by working on them until they’re fixed. Improv has shown me that recovery time is just as important as work-out time (gym analogy). That sleep is important. That vacations are important. That you can grow from downtime just as much as… uptime?

Improv is play. Goofing around. No right or wrong. No judgement. Just be silly. And you grow without trying to grow. In other words, it's actually a lot like eating cake. 

So to answer your question, How does improv help with anxiety? It lets you do the work without doing the work. It gives you a break from thinking you’re a problem that needs to be fixed. The work works. The play works. And the play is fun!

Essentially, I played my anxiety away.