While the idea of taking an improv class may send you into a cold sweat, it can have powerful effects on our mental health. After many years doing improv as part of drama classes, I’m coming to realise the many benefits it has on my daily life. These effects are being supported by research, and are becoming the focus of new programs that use improv to treat mental health disorders such as anxiety.
From Fear to Fun
Improvisation involves acting out stories that your ensemble invents as it goes. Why does this scare people? I know why it scared me. I was terrified of not having anything to say, of not being funny enough, and generally just not being good at it.
Though I took drama classes all throughout school, and loved working with scripts, if someone said the word improv, I panicked. Yet, over the years, the terror turned into acceptance then finally exhilaration. I stopped thinking “I can’t,” and “I’m bad at this,” and instead thought “Okay, let’s do this!” I still experience some anxiety when entering an improv class or workshop, but that disappears soon enough. When I fall into the moment of expression and creation, there’s really nothing like it. We’re not aware of it, but in this moment we’re forgetting to judge ourselves, forgetting that critical voice that analyses what we’re about to say or do, and instead we follow the impulse that instantly responds to what another person offers us.
It can be difficult to get yourself off to that first class, but letting go will come naturally in time. It doesn’t take most people long (only a few classes), and even though I’m one of the few who struggled for a while, there was always enough joy and fun mixed with the fear to push me on. And now I get to reap the rewards.
Improv for Life
The core components of improv relate to things I do every day – or things I wish I did more. The first rule of improve is to always say “Yes.” This means working with any idea I’m given, before making a judgment and rejecting it. Essentially, it’s about giving things a go, which makes improv an essentially positive activity. And the more you do it, in improv and in life, the more you learn to respond positively to what gets thrown at you.
The concept of staying in the moment is another major part of the art of improv. It’s a vital aspect of shutting down that snarky voice that tells us our ideas are stupid. Being in the moment means we’re not worrying about the future or past, not worrying about what people might think of us, but simply focusing on the experience of right now.
Interestingly, being in the moment is also a core aspect of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which targets the negative beliefs we have about our abilities, and challenges social anxieties, such as the fear of not being popular or funny. By being in the moment – or being ‘mindful’ as it’s called by therapists – we can forget the worries and fears about things beyond what they’re experiencing right now. For people suffering anxiety or depression, this is a powerful technique to quiet the thoughts that hold us back.
However, you don’t have to struggle with your mental health to see it hugely benefitted by improv! Every individual can benefit from its effects. A study on the effects of improvisation on the brain was recently conducted by doctors at the National Institutes of Health. The first study focused on jazz musicians doing improvisation, then a following study monitored rappers and hip-hop artists while they improvised lyrics. Both studies found the same results.
When improvising, the part of the brain connected to self-censoring is shut off, helping to remove inhibitions. At the same time, there was increased activity in the part of the brain responsible for self-expression, such as telling stories and responding to stimulus. These results come as no surprise to people who have experienced improv, however, many of them will tell you that the effects go much further than what could be mapped by this study.
I walk out of classes feeling exhilarated and somehow lighter. I now consciously try to bring improv into daily life, encouraging myself to follow my impulses rather than remaining in my comfort zone. It gives me far greater confidence socially by helping me know that I’m able to respond to any situation. It’s also the best stress release, since you can release pent up emotions and physical tension through the movement, games, and stories. And a dose of laughter always helps lift your mood!
If you want to see for yourself what improv can do in your life, look around your local area for improv groups, or theatres that run workshops. Community centres are great places to ask, as well as at community theatres. Improv is mostly relaxed, so you shouldn’t have to sign up to any major commitment. Depending on the class, some may be casual attendance, and others will run to a set semester. Either way, an hour of improv will brighten your whole week, and a lot more. Once a great fear, improv has freed me from fear, helping me live my life with fewer inhibitions and more joyful expressions.
All photos are courtesy of the author.