Welcome back! Please tell me I’m not the only one who needed a break after the holidays.
I’m sorry if this first newsletter of 2021 finds you in a rattled state. I won’t rehash, analyze, or otherwise linger on the horrors of this past week because I don’t show up in your inbox to stress you out. No. I want to do the opposite.
I just want to say - if you’re feeling extra angry, scared, or disappointed this week, you’re not alone.
And if you’re an anxious person looking for a drug-free escape from reality, I’ve got the perfect thing!
Improvisational theater (improv) may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ways to alleviate anxiety. Improv is unscripted, unplanned comedy that relies on spontaneous contributions from the performers.
Y’all remember Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Now, I’m not one to set New Year’s Resolutions, but last year, I set an intention to take an improv class by the end of 2020.
I was interested in improv for many reasons.
The first spark lit up while watching The Bill Murray Stories, a documentary about my all-time favorite comedian’s wild and zany antics. The movie highlights how Bill Murray’s Yes, and… approach to life encourages opportunities and connections, in turn creating the best stories.
Yes, and… is the foundation of improv. It means that, no matter what another performer does or says, you accept it (yes), then build on it (and…). You don’t judge, control, or criticize. It’s the ultimate creative playground.
The topic of improv came up again on one of my favorite podcasts, Self-Helpless. The hosts were discussing ways to become a better listener, and one of them said, “If you want to learn to be a good listener, take an improv class, that’s my number one recommendation.”
Improving my listening skills sounded like a great idea. Who doesn’t love a good listener? I also heard (on the same podcast) that being a good listener can help you cope with social anxiety.
And that brings me to the primary reason I signed up for an improv class… because the thought of doing so scared the shit out of me.
You’re probably familiar with social anxiety, but just in case, it’s an extreme and persistent fear of being embarrassed or judged by others. About 12% of adults in the United States experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and it’s especially common among women ages 18-44.
I’ve had my fair share of social anxiety episodes over the years. It’s gotten much better, but social anxiety used to really interfere with my life. I’ve avoided or bailed on many social gatherings out of fear. I’ve even talked myself out of going into a crowded store.
In high school, I refused to do assignments that involved speaking in front of the class. I remember one time, my teacher allowed me to make-up one such assignment. Not only did I turn bright red and stammer, but my entire body started shaking like a frightened dog halfway through my presentation.
At some point, I started taking benzodiazepines to treat my social anxiety. The drugs calmed my nerves well enough, but they came with undesirable side effects. They made me forget everything, including the fact that some things are best left unsaid.
When I took benzos, I had no filter and no memory of what I did or said. Benzodiazepines are also habit-forming, and I have an addictive personality.
After I kicked the benzos, I began using cannabis to alleviate my anxiety symptoms. Contrary to popular misinformation, my memory and cognitive skills were sharper on weed than they ever were on conventional prescription psychopharmaceuticals.
But cannabis is another habit I’ve recently quelled, leaving me to come up with more creative ways to manage anxiety.
And that’s when I remembered my improv intention. A quick google search revealed classes specifically for anxious people! I signed up for Improv For Anxiety Escape with Second City.
How does improv help with anxiety?
First of all, the fact that this class was specifically for people with social anxiety made the whole thing seem less intimidating. I went into it knowing that everyone in the class was just as scared of me as I was of them.
The instructor was also extra sensitive and encouraging. We quickly learned that there are no mistakes or slip-ups in improv. No matter what you say, the others will yes, and… you.
And, if all else fails, just repeat what the previous person said.
We learned how to listen, support, and be silly, even as crazy things were going on in the world. At times, it felt like the adult version of kids playing in a sandbox.
The four-week class overlapped with the election, a time when my nervous system was already haywire. I found that improv helped me to complete the stress cycle in various ways. I laughed, moved my body, and connected with others in a safe and supportive space. (BTW- listen to that podcast if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me.)
Anxiety isn’t the only mental health condition that improv can treat! A recent study published in the Journal of Mental Health concludes, “improv exercises may provide a strong and efficient treatment for patients with anxiety and depression.”
At some point in the class, I realized there’s nothing to be afraid of. My past experiences with social anxiety didn’t cause lasting damage that limits me in any way.
And, really, we’re all a bunch of highly evolved apes trying to find purpose and establish connections through bodies that will one day decompose and become part of this earth that’s spinning and circling through a tiny corner of a universe that’s bigger than our capacity to measure.
So we might as well have fun.
ps- if you have a loved one who may benefit from reading this post, will you please share it with them?
Besos y abrazos