First off, CBT therapy is very effective for treating anxiety and it has definitely helped me. I am super picky with therapy and therapists. When you and your therapist get along and just click it’s magic. I call going to therapy going to the Brain Spa because that’s what it feels like for me. I never want to go to the Brain Spa, but I always walk out feeling 1000% better. It’s kind of addictive. However, now that I’ve moved back home, I don’t have the same doctors I used to have and I haven’t yet somewhere that feels as good as my old doctor.
Over the summer I was going to my new doctor/therapist pretty consistently. However, it was missing the mark for me and I stopped going.
While doing some online research, I read about a class from the Second City called Improv for Anxiety. It got me thinking…hmm… could this be for me? From the description, it seems like the class is geared for tackling social anxiety, so I didn’t end up taking the class called Improv for Anxiety. My previous experience with improv consisted of a workshop in high school and reading Tina Fey’s book. Just from those two interactions, I incorporated improv inspired principles in aspects of my life – like giving presentations and coaching people on interview skills (especially group interview skills).
After hearing some commercials for Second City on the radio, I was like, what the heck, I’ll give it a go. I signed up for their Improv Level A class. A three hour class, once a week, for six weeks. Every week I begrudgingly left the house, drove to the train station, rode the train with great anxiety from ruminating about what might be thrown at me, and dragged my heels from Union Station to the training centre.
As I have continued on with my improv classes, the more I have found in common between improv class and really good therapy. I have outlined some reasons why I think improv makes for great therapy. And why after every class it’s like that moment in final savasana where you just take a big breath to thank yourself for coming. There is no succeeding, failing, benchmarking, judging. You went and that’s all that matters. And good for you for doing that.
1. Hello, I made it.
Okay, so my classes have all started with stretches. Like literal stretching. In fact, in today’s class we did what were essentially sun salutations. It’s nice to start off with a physical reminder that you are here now, and it’s time to get into the improv mindset. Leave everything else behind.
2. Yay failing and ambiguity
If you’re not okay with the idea of failing and hate uncertainty, you need to do some improv. Because even if you logically know that you learn from failure and uncertainty is everywhere, and even if you went to business school where you were taught to make decisions despite incomplete information, subconsciously most of us are NOT OKAY with failure and facing the unknown. I know that some of my anxiety is essentially the paralyzing fear of uncertainty.
At improv you work towards not just being okay with failure and the unknown, but towards accepting and expecting it.
3. No self judgement
The best improv teachers will remind you that you need to stop judging yourself. In order to let go and really get the best experience, you need to let your guard down. So yeah, we beat ourselves up all the time, but we don’t realize how damaging that habit can be. Improv puts that into perspective. You feel like you did something wrong…what if I did this instead…? However, the truth is, no one else in the room is thinking about that anymore and NO ONE CARES. Everyone has moved the next thing. Are you obsessing over the choice of words that other person made 20 seconds ago? No! Forgive yourself and move on with yo life.
Which brings me to…
4. Get out of your head and be present
Being self-conscious is a self obsessive habit. Anxiety is kind of selfish in the same way – your brain can’t stop thinking about all YOUR problems. In order to do improv well, you need to be present, be actively listening, and watching your peers. You can’t be all in your head AND focusing on all that’s going on. It’s just not possible.
5. No excuses
Negation and excuses won’t get you anywhere in improv. You just have to say, “YES, and…” no matter what the other person has offered. The other person has given you a beautiful GIFT, the gift of a choice of words/actions, and all you’re allowed to do is ACCEPT the gift because not doing so is incredibly rude.
With anxiety, my brain is always making excuses to not do things. Like, if I maybe I want some new socks or something, my brain will be all, “Well….I’d have to get in the car and cars use gas, and that’s bad for the environment, and then traffic might be bad, then I have to park and if I don’t park no one will accidentally ding my car with their carelessness, and at the mall I might run into someone I know and make small talk ugh, and what if someone tries to ask me for directions or something, and if I don’t go I won’t spend money and besides they might not even have something I like and then this trip would have been a whole waste. Nah, it’s too much. I’m not going.”
In improv, by making yourself say YES over and over and over again, you are developing a new habit. It’s actually a lot like CBT where you learn to notice your thinking patterns and try to change them. Developing a new subconscious habit of saying yes and yes to new unknown situations? Probably a good thing. Especially for me.
Anxiety stops your life from happening. It makes you say no. Improv makes you say yes.
6. Make a decision
If I let my anxiety brain takeover, I will literally never ever get anything done ever because I will spend all my time what if-ing and mentally making decision trees. In improv there’s no time to second guess yourself. There’s no time to think twice. Just fucking do it! Whatever comes to your head first that’s it. That’s what you go with.
My brain just like IMPLODES when it comes to making inconsequential decisions. Over the past year my focus has just been DOING SOMETHING. Because doing something is better than wasting another day, losing another day because of stupid anxiety brain. I make decisions for my future self. I buy concert tickets and MAKE future me go. Yes, sometimes I ditch my own plans to go to a concert I wanted to see. I try and just DO THINGS, but the habit of letting anxiety brain takes over is SO ingrained that it’s really hard for me. But I keep on practicing!
7. Laughter is the best medicine
And when everyone in the room is just coming up with stuff on the spot, the results end up being totally random and the by product of that can be funnies. Laughter is the best medicine and I swear group laughter is even better.
8. YOU DID GREAT!
It’s really funny because my group has randomly taken up the habit of applauding people who enter the class late. YAY YOU! For persevering through traffic, for finding parking and coming anyways! But that’s kind of the spirit. No matter what you do, people are going to laugh it off with you and give you a nice round of applause.
Have you ever just walked into the room and had people applaud you for just existing? It feels just as good as when your therapist tells you that you’re great for 60 minutes.
9. Trust the others, they gotchu
Having a support system is everything. When you do improv, your peers are there for you. But in order to have a perfect balance you need to trust them and they need to trust you. You need to let go of the desire to take control and trust that you’ll get there together.
10. Keep going
No matter what’s been thrown your way, you keep going. Just go with it.
It’s an awesome life skill. To be able to stay grounded when things go wrong and just deal with things as they come.