3 Ways You Can Relieve Anxiety Through Improv Comedy

A winning strategy for escaping from the endless loop of anxiety.

Posted May 28, 2018

Free photo from Pexels
Source: Free photo from Pexels

We live in the Age of Anxiety.

According to a recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association, 39% of Americans are feeling significantly more stress than they did a year ago.  39%! 

We clearly need help.

Luckily, help is available, through what may seem like a very unlikely source: improv comedy.

There are many misconceptions about improv.  People often assume that you have to be naturally funny, practically a stand-up comic, to participate in improv.  But what you really need in order to take part in improv is to be able to pay attention, and follow the rules.

The rules vary from one improv “game” to another.  Some are very simple and some are very complex.  One of the most complex improv games is the famous game, “The Harold,” developed by Del Close, who for many years was the resident director of the Second City Improv Theater in Chicago.

My own personal favorite improv game is a very simple one called, “Yes, and…”. For “Yes, and…” you need about six people to play (ideally).  Someone starts it off, and you each take a turn in sequence, and then keep repeating the sequence, over and over.

The first person starts the game by making a simple statement of observable, undeniable fact, like, for example, “There’s a parade going down the street.”  Or maybe, “There’s a panda knocking at the front door, and he’s wearing a Dodgers baseball cap.”

Some simple statement like that, of observable, undeniable fact.

The next player accepts the validity of the statement, without questioning it.  She then builds on it by saying, “Yes, and…” and then adds something else to it. You never contradict or disagree with whatever came before.

So, the game continues, with each new person in the sequence accepting everything that came before (Yes, and...), and adding something new to it.

The game moves fast and it builds in complexity very quickly.  It doesn’t require an ability to think of funny things, because the pressure to quickly respond with something new, when it’s your turn, means that the verbal structure being created will almost certainly be funny and bizarre.  It always is.

So how could playing an improv game help reduce anxiety?

Returning to the survey by the American Psychiatric Association, survey respondents indicated that their increased anxiety was typically focused on one (or more) of three specific areas: safety, “keeping myself or my family safe”; finances, being able to meet financial obligations; and health.

In addition, one in five of the respondents reported being “extremely anxious about the impact of politics on my daily life.”

Safety, finances, health and politics are all very specific areas.  And respondents to the survey described their experiences with these areas of anxiety, as feeling like being trapped in a computer loop, where they keep going over and over the same thing, and not being able to get out.

They can’t get out of the endless loop of anxiety and fear.

That’s where improv comedy comes in.  It helps us get out of the anxiety loop in three different ways:

First, we have to remember all the different new additions that each player comes up with.  The game moves fast and there’s a lot to remember.

Second, every time it’s your turn, you have to add something new to everything that’s gone before.  It has to fit somehow into the overall structure that is being improvised.  And you won’t know exactly what you have to build on until the turn just before yours!

Third, you have to really concentrate.  In order to remember everything, and be ready when it’s your (recurring) turn, you have to really pay close attention.

So, the demands of the game, because it forces us to concentrate, help us escape from the endless loop of our anxiety.  But in addition to the three ways we have just mentioned, there is also a fourth way that improv comedy is tremendously beneficial in relieving anxiety.  

It is fun!

Whenever we’re suffering under the weight of anxiety, we’re almost always feeling the accompanying emotions of fear and dread.  But a good round of improv comedy can completely turn things around.  Oftentimes in the process of an improv game, or at its’ conclusion, the participants are laughing uproariously.  The reason is not because they are all being so witty or clever.  But because the pressure of having to make a contribution when it’s your turn, and you’ve had no time to prepare, means that people say all kinds of wacky, ridiculous, outrageous things.

Funny things!

Improv comedy is one of the surest ways I know of to send anxiety packing. 

Try it.

© 2018 David Evans, All rights Reserved