New Study on Improvisation and Stress Reduction
Improv reduces pre-performance stress for student teachers.
Posted Aug 19, 2020
Imagine getting on stage without a script. You’re standing in front of an audience and your job is to just start making stuff up, creating an entertaining scene out of thin air.
Most people wouldn’t associate this with stress reduction, but a recent study by Sirke Seppänen, Tapio Toivanen, Tommi Makkonen, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Mikko Anttonen, and Kaisa Tiippana (2020) links improvisation and pre-performance stress reduction.
The research team’s goal was to measure how effective theatrical improvisation was at reducing student teachers' social stress—meaning how anxious they were before and after speaking in front of an audience.
In the study, all participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which involves publically answering an impromptu math question in front of a jury. Participants are made to think that they are being evaluated, so stress from the TSST comes both from the “uncontrollability” and the “social evaluative threat" (Seppänen, et. al 2020)—in short, not knowing the question and thinking other people were judging them were the causes of social stress.
Thirty-five participants were divided into a control group and an intervention group. The intervention group participated in a seven-week improv workshop before the stress test, while the control group joined a two-day improv lesson after the test had already been completed. Participants didn’t know whether or not they were in the intervention group.
Researchers used self-report questionnaires to measure interpersonal confidence, self-esteem, and stress, and salivary cortisol samples and electrodes to measure psychophysical stress levels before and during the impromptu math question.
The findings were not entirely what the researchers expected. The intervention group did show a decrease in stress levels during the 30 seconds leading up to the math task as measured by electrodes. This shows that participants in the seven-week improv course were more relaxed and less stressed as they waited to spontaneously perform in front of an audience. They also found that participants in the intervention group who started the study with low interpersonal confidence self-reported being less stressed during the TSST task. Participants with low interpersonal confidence showed the most significant reduction in stress levels, which was in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, and they attribute this finding to improv’s emphasis on accepting mistakes.
However, cortisol levels and other electrode readings diverged from the researchers’ hypothesis and did not show clear stress reductions in the intervention group as compared to the control group during the math task. The intervention group actually adapted less to the spontaneous public task than the control group according to psychophysical measures. The researchers posit that this could be because improv focuses on a reciprocal relationship, outward focus, and give and take. Since the math task jurors were instructed not to react to the participants, improv may have actually made participants less comfortable with such a solitary public speaking task because of their increased focus on the jurors without any feedback in return.
For me, the takeaway is that improv seemed to make people feel less stressed before and during a stressful task even though psychophysical measures failed to show reductions in stress levels during the task. There are a lot of variables in this study, and it’s encouraging that improvisation training may help people feel less stressed about extemporaneous public speaking, but I’d love to see studies that measure how improvisation affects psychophysical stress levels during stressful social interactions and not just solitary, extemporaneous public speaking.
In my experience teaching improv workshops and just generally being a socially anxious introvert, I’ve observed that shy people tend to experience more benefits from improvisation training than more outgoing people. This study seems to confirm that anecdotal evidence. Putting ourselves out there, taking risks, going along with each other’s ideas, and accepting mistakes seems to help people with lower levels of interpersonal confidence. I just wonder how much more pronounced this benefit would be if measured during more social group tasks.
I know that what works for my stress levels has been to adapt improv games for my everyday life. I’ve developed 120 improv-inspired exercises to help myself calm down, stop overthinking, and connect better with others in my book Play Your Way Sane. These games have helped me with stress reduction during social interactions, and it’s encouraging to see researchers exploring this same avenue of inquiry.
Keep improvising. Keep playing. Stay curious.
Drinko, C. (2021). Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Drinko, C. (2013). Theatrical improvisation, consciousness, and cognition. Springer.
Seppänen, S., Toivanen, T., Makkonen, T., Jääskeläinen, I. P., Anttonen, M., & Tiippana, K. (2020). Effects of Improvisation Training on Student Teachers’ Behavioral, Neuroendocrine, and Psychophysiological Responses during the Trier Social Stress Test. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1-25.