How Improv Can Help People Deal With Anxiety, Depression

By David Konow 01/02/18

Improv participants dealing with mental health issues say the non-judgmental environment allows them to be more adventurous and less afraid of failure. 

three members of a youth theater group

Comedic improvisation is an art form that involves participants creating fun and outlandish scenes in the moment. And for some, the improvisations has served as a helpful exercise that provides a distraction from the oft-consuming nature of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

At Spontaneity Shop, improv teacher Alex MacLaren believes that half the people who come in are not performers, just regular people using comedic improvisation to deal with stress and depression.

At ComedySportz UK, reportedly 75% of the people coming in are also non-performers as well, the Guardian reports.

One woman in the ComedySportz class, Sarah Farrell, was also in therapy and wanted to enhance her healing with improv. “I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time,” she recalled, “[so] maybe it was to distract myself from those long Saturday afternoons.”

This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, according to Psychology Today, the Second City Theater in Chicago offered an improv class called Improv For Anxiety, which was set up in conjunction with PARC, or the Panic Anxiety Recovery Center.

When setting up an improv group, it’s important to set up an environment where people can make mistakes without judgment, which makes them more adventurous and less afraid of failure. In helping people overcome anxiety and fear, Brainne Edge, who runs ComedySportz, says she sets up “a comfortable space for people to try things and play and not worry about consequences.”

One of the keys is letting her students know there is no “wrong” thing you can say in an exercise. “That is incredibly powerful because we are so used to trying to get the answer right.”

After performing improv exercises, Farrell learned to not overthink. “You try to be less inside your head,” she said. “With anxiety and depression you’ve always got the running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful for me.”

Comedienne Pippa Evans has her own group, Improv Your Life, which is for regular non-performers, and she also learned the importance of letting go of control, and letting her life happen instead of worrying about the future. She says, “Improvisation allowed me to be open to a life where I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel and therefore appreciate what’s happening in the moment."

And indeed, even Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone has used improv to help with her anxiety when she was younger. She told Rolling Stone, "I started acting at this youth theater, doing improv and sketch comedy. You have to be present in improv, and that’s the antithesis of anxiety.” 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.