5 Powerful Ways Improvisation Training Can Strengthen Psychological Resilience
Improvisation exercises are unique in their focus on radical acceptance and immediate engagement among the players, with the potential to rapidly galvanize the creative possibilities of a group. Acceptance is essential for rapid and reliable cohesion around the common goal of generating “something wonderful right away,” — which happens to be the title of an oral history of improvisation in theater compiled by playwright Jeffrey Sweet — and immediate engagement spikes spontaneity, a creative resource from which everyone involved can draw. The mental health benefits of creating with others in a positive social-emotional environment such as this are rooted in studies of resilience that cite active coping, humor, and prosocial behavior as traits that enhance the capacity to manage psychological challenges. These traits are associated with recovery from trauma, grief and depression, as well as accessing resources for living with chronic stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Mental Health reported a boost in self-esteem and reduction of symptoms of anxiety and depression after an improv intervention, and a study published in Arts In Psychotherapy showed demonstrable reduction of social anxiety through improv training among at-risk youth in Detroit public schools.
Performers learn improv techniques as a way to connect to an imagined reality and respond to one another with spontaneity. The practice of applying these same techniques to real-life problems has roots in social work and community service. Improv exercises are, at the core, methods for communicating over barriers and tapping our potential to think and behave in new ways.
In his account of training at Second City in Chicago as a young actor, Alan Alda describes how improvisation shaped not only his entire approach to acting but also to what it means to grow and expand as a human. He reflects on what he views as the link between mental wellness and having the strength to choose our responses to adversity and make healthy decisions in life, “the ability to relax under the most harrowing conditions. Certainly improvising teaches you that. And there’s another element which is extremely strong, but very hard to define, and that’s magnetism, for want of a better word. Up to now it has been thought that people are either born with magnetism or they’re not. But I think improvising really makes you more magnetic, increases your natural magnetism.” In other words, through improvisation we can actually strengthen a kind of authentic presence with other people that is an invaluable resource for navigating life and relationships.
This year, The Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science celebrates a decade of using improvisation to train scientists, researchers, medical professionals and others to communicate more effectively about complex issues, which reflect the expanding role of improvisation in professional and personal development. Learning through improv games and exercises is fun and joyful, a deceptively sophisticated method to lay down new neural pathways paved with distinct positive social-emotional memories. Mental health is boosted by the constellation of interpersonal and creative thinking skills gradually enhance the sense of psychological safety in the group so that an unplanned, unpredictable social-emotional experience can be created in the moment. And by learning the skills improvisers use to tell stories together without a script, anyone can use this training to develop greater adaptability, agility, creativity and spontaneity for meeting challenges on the stage of life.
Here are 5 evidence-based mental health benefits of improvisation training:
- Develop self-compassion. Improvisation requires some degree of risk and the willingness to wade into unfamiliar waters. Radical acceptance as the fundamental principle underlying the group connection and an emphasis on fun and creativity go a long way toward managing the discomforts of creative and emotional risk, but it can still stir up self-judgment and self-criticism. When we feel “out on a limb” in an improv exercise or scene, it means we have bravely extended ourselves beyond our usual roles and defenses, an ideal moment to shift into self-compassion and honor that psychological courage. When we are doing something interesting and creative, with good will toward our fellow players, those habitual negative internal “voices” might still try to ruin it with self-criticism. The language of self-compassion is the “yes” of improvisation: yes you put yourself out there, yes it was a bit scary, yes you are brave for doing that, yes you need to affirm the struggle in order to affirm the gains.
- Increase tolerance for the discomfort of change. Much like a juggler learns to keep one ball in the air, then 2, then more and more complex objects, improv skills are a way to continually grow and strengthen skills for navigating increasingly ambiguity and complexity. The skills for dealing with the unfamiliar provide a pathway for managing difficult life transitions and psychological struggles. Situations of uncertainty and risk can activate the same fight/flight/freeze response as that evoked by physical threats, which sends the brain into a heightened state of tension when activity in the pre-frontal cortex — which we need to be able to problem-solve, think things through and learn new information — is reduced to a narrow focus of attention on potential threats. When the stress response is activated, we are more likely to have a heightened perception of threats and less cognitive capacity to judge whether or not they are real. Change is even more difficult if it lands us in a self-perpetuating, emotionally reactive state But research shows that we can learn to manage uncertainty and change without shifting into the stress response by strengthening the capacity to self-regulate and development of social-emotional skills.
- Reframe struggle and strengthen self-worth through identifying values. Improv offers a pathway to both fully acknowledge stressful truths, mistakes and obstacles while at the same time shift attention to something useful and positive. Things can go wrong in life despite our best efforts and there are any number of internal and external barriers — social factors, going through loss, financial stress to name just a few —to performing as well as we would like or have the potential to do. The cycle of negative self-judgment and/or anger toward the factors we cannot control can take hold as the self-protective defenses triggered by threats rise up.
An exercise we practice in “Mental Health Benefits Of Improvisation Training” utilizes the “yes…and” principle for cognitive reframing. Players are divided into teams or 3 or 4. One team member is allowed to rant about something that really upsets them for 1–2 minutes without interruption. Team members listen closely. Then each team member shares what this rant reveals about things the person deeply values. As an example, a player rants “traffic where I live is insane and it is ruining my life. Other drivers are selfish and cut you off or don’t pay attention and cause accidents. We can’t get any infrastructure funding to get better public transportation and cut down on all the cars on the road, which really frustrates me. I just want to get home at a decent hour and have some peace with my wife.” The team reflects “this man values civility on the roads. He values safety and people working together. He values working toward solutions to common problems, and down time to unwind.”
A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that listening for and affirming peoples’ values had a positive impact on their ability to discuss problems, including problems with their own performance. Listening for what is being expressed beyond the reactive emotions provides the “yes” to what the person is going through. Reframing what is expressed to reflect the underlying values is the “and.” This technique is useful in real life relationships and is also something we can do for ourselves to rethink reactive emotions.
4. Practice thinking in new ways through trying on new behaviors. Improvisation is about behavior. Relationships develop through the way people behave together and treat one another, and improvisation techniques involve creative expression through behavior. What we discover, when expressing a specific state of mind or emotion, is that behaving as if something is true inspires ideas we did not know would come if we approach a situation from a more intellectual or rational place. The focus on physical and emotional expression gets us out of our self-protective mental frames so new ideas and inspiration can emerge.
As an example, in one warm-up we use in the “Mental Health Benefits Of Improvisation Training” we greet others around us as if these people are old friends we have not seen in a long time, then greet some other people as if they are a movie icon and we are completely star-struck, then greet a few more as if we just heard some really juicy news about them. As a group of 40 social workers at a recent conference workshop shared after doing this exercise, the instruction to behave in a specific way made it safe and fun to approach total strangers. That led to a shift in self-perception and a general atmosphere of warmth among the people in the room. Behavior produced a social-emotional shift that galvanized the group energy for the learning to follow.
Another example that demonstrates how this works is the “free-style freeze-frame” exercise. The group stands in a circle, one person goes into the center and strikes a pose. As quickly as possible, two other members add to the pose to create a sculpture inspired in the moment. Someone in the circle gives the sculpture a name, then steps in to start a new sculpture through striking a pose. The tendency to overthink and try to come up with the “right” name might rise up in this exercise, but the idea is to choose and add to the pose very rapidly and to name it without getting too rational or thoughtful. Allowing ourselves to be inspired and to express that inspiration is a new behavior for many people. The group embraces the nonsensical, the abstract, and the more the group accepts what is wild and uncensored the more inspired individuals become.
Neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb, states that “when you’re doing something that’s creative, you’re engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity.” A broad area — called the lateral prefrontal region , which is responsible for behavioral planning — shuts down essentially. This means there is a reduction in the self-protective cognitive functions that edit and censor our thoughts and choices, just enough to allow a more free flow of ideas and willingness to experiment.
5. Imaginary situations are a safe way to explore real interpersonal dynamics.
In an exercise called “Environments” we explore unspoken dynamics among people related to one another based on a specific place or world. A group stands in a line in front of the group, and is assigned an environment, e.g. a bank. Each player steps forward and does a brief monologue from the role of a person who might be in a bank, e.g, a teller, a customer, a loan officer, a manager. After each player has “become” a person in that environment, they are instructed to choose someone in the line-up they are secretly in love with, and do another brief monologue adding to what was already stated, based on this new layer of character-building. A third layer can be added, in which each player chooses someone they see as a problem in that environment and add to their monologue. As the monologues reveal feelings the characters have about one another, the facilitator can shift into simple scenes. A monologue can be delivered to one other person — e.g. the person the character is secretly in love — and be about anything bank-related but not directly about being in love. This is a way to explore how having a strong attraction or loyalty to one person in a group impacts the way we behave and relate to them, and how we perceive others in the group as well. It is a completely imaginary way to look at how real interpersonal dynamics can impact the way we behave, and also to understand how changing our behavior — or being honest about our feelings in some cases — is the most powerful way to shape a relationship or situation.
The experience of improvisation has a double edge. In shifting into the mindset of “yes” to what happens in the game or exercise we will become more aware of ways we overthink even ordinary responses, just out of habit, sometimes out of fear. It can be uncomfortable to enter into uncertainty this way. Unwavering support from the group is something many of us have rarely, if ever, experienced and so we may not believe can be realized. But properly designed and facilitated, the games and exercises that train improvisers to create “something wonderful right away” can help anyone be more self-affirming, positive and magnetic toward other people and psychologically resilient.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, is a Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, writer/performer, trainer and consultant with Lifestage, Inc. She is chair of the Applied Improvisation Network 2019 World Conference taking place at Stony Brook University Aug. 8–11, 2019, in partnership with the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science. Twitter: JuTrWolff