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Promoting Emotional and Mental Health through Improv

28 January 2019
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I took my first improv class when I moved to Chicago five years ago. I didn’t know many people in the city, so I thought it might be a fun way to make new friends and reconnect with my high school theater days. It wasn’t easy at first. I felt really vulnerable being asked to be silly with a room full of strangers. Over time, though, I not only started to have fun, but I started feeling an increased sense of well-being and happiness in my life on and off stage. These days, performing and teaching improv plays a vital creative and therapeutic role in my life.

In the past decade, improv has been recognized and utilized more and more as a therapeutic tool. In many ways, improvising is an activity which provides a space to practice positive habits that can translate to life off stage (Bermant, 2013). Improv is, at its fullest form, a group of people making up a 30-minute show on the spot, based on a one word suggestion from the audience. It relies heavily on trusting yourself and your teammates. It requires a willingness to embrace the unknown. People start practicing improv for various reasons (apart from seeking fame on Saturday Night Live) including to make friends, destress after work, recover after a tough breakup, and help reduce anxiety.

Reflecting on the improv fundamentals that I and many improvisers practice regularly can help illustrate why improvising can have such a positive effect on emotional and mental health.

Fire the judge

Improv rehearsals and workshops are often started by members “firing the judge” – or the voice inside our heads that tells us that we’re not funny or that everyone is going to think our ideas are stupid. Our judges are well-meaning. They’re trying to protect us by warning us about everything we might do wrong, but we really don’t need that voice in our ears while we’re improvising. Over time, I’ve found that we generally don’t need our judge very much at all.

Be present

Improvisation isn’t really about being talented or funny. What it requires most is a willingness to be fully present with yourself and with your teammates. True spontaneity, authenticity and joy are found when players aren’t caught up wondering if their last scene was any good or what their next line should be.

This focus on being present connects deeply with the concept of mindfulness (Hamou, 2019). In improv, it is important to rely on your gut instincts and your present intuition over your thinking mind. There simply is no way to be lost in your head and present during the show at the same time. When that happens, you might miss something someone says or the moment your intuition tells you it’s time to act. It is this tenet of improv that can be so helpful in alleviating anxiety and promoting self-confidence.

I’ve got your back

The moments before almost every improv show, players will take a moment to tell each of their teammates “I’ve got your back.” It is our job to make one another look good on stage, which we do through supporting every idea without judgment. During a scene, if someone on stage says they hear a snow monster outside the window, a supportive player will run to the stage window and make that a reality. If you’re too busy wondering if you know what a snow monster sounds like or if your teammate’s idea was even funny in the first place, you’ll miss the chance to support them and to create something together.

A good improv team trusts that any risk an individual takes is mitigated by the support of the team. In general, it is a place to practice both supporting others and trusting that others will support you too. It’s much easier to follow your gut when you know you’ve got several people around you who have your back.

Do the show and let it go

I have probably performed in about 500 improv shows in the past five years. Some have been good, but many of them have absolutely bombed. It was vital for me to learn how to let a bad show go. Maybe I felt out of sync with my teammates or maybe every line I said was met with crickets from the audience. No matter what, it’s essential for all of us to be gentle with ourselves and move on after we make a mistake. I have found that the skill of being able to learn from our mistakes and not to dwell on them too much is hugely beneficial to overall mental and emotional wellness.

Participating in improv in and of itself can be a therapeutic part of life for people. Improv techniques can also be incorporated into both individual and group therapy. For information about upcoming improv courses at Clarity Clinic that are designed to promote well-being and about how improv can be a part of your therapeutic healing, contact Hailey at hpalmer@claritynwi.com

Hailey Palmer

Master of Social Work Intern

Clarity Clinic NWI

Bermant, G. (2013). Working with(out) a net: improvisational theater and enhanced well-being. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 929. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00929

Hamou, R. B. (2013). 6 ways improv aligns with mindfulness. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/all-things-improv/six-ways-improv-aligns-with-mindfulness-c9578bb3b1f3



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