Improv for Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are one of the top reported psychiatric disorders in the US today. Most of the clients seeking help in my practice are coming due to anxiety issues.

There are many types of anxiety disorders, from nervousness to full blown panic attacks.

According to professional literature, psychotherapy that emphasizes working with, rather than against, the experience of anxiety – for instance, CBT, ACT, and various forms of exposure therapy – has proven very effective.*

However, there are other alternative techniques that help this painful disorder such as meditation, mindfulness and creative arts therapies.

Improvisational Comedy is a creative arts therapy being used in many clinical settings today. So far, Improv shows a lot of promise in helping to reduce a person’s anxiety.**

I had recently recovered from a ruptured brain aneurysm surgery when I attended my first Improv class. I wanted to do something completely new that might “help” my brain. I learned first-hand the therapeutic value of Improv Comedy after that first class. I left feeling upbeat, more confident and supported by a group of strangers (similar to a 12-step meeting but with a bit more laughter).

I also recognized the similarities between Improv philosophy and psychotherapy.

One of the first principles of Improv is “acceptance.” The first class in Improv teaches the acceptance concept. We accept everything anyone does on stage. For examples if Joan says to Bob, “I love your Mohawk,” he doesn’t respond with “I don’t have a Mohawk” but rather “Thanks, I did it myself.”

In treatment, the first task is to create a therapeutic relationship and acceptance is a key factor. Building a therapeutic alliance with clients is accepting them where they are in that moment and creating a safe space.

Next week I will discuss the acceptance philosophy with Dr. Carl Roger’s psychotherapeutic technique of person-centered psychotherapy.

*For greater understanding of anxiety disorders, visit Dr. David Carbonell’s site Anxiety Coach. Dr. Carbonell is a leading expert on this topic and the director of the all-therapist Improv Team The Therapy Players.

**See Dr. Kristin Krueger’s work on the effects of improv on anxiety, depression and self-esteem at Dr. Kristin Krueger.