By Marnie Burkman | Photos by Joni Strickfaden
Remember a time when you felt caught in a “funk” — whether you felt gloomy, anxious, irritated, or otherwise trapped in a mood that wasn’t quite “you”? Imagine some words to describe how that feeling-state felt in your body — perhaps you felt a heavy heart, a frozen throat, butterflies in your stomach, or a tight pressure in your head. Perhaps it felt hard to relax, to be focused and creative, or to feel a deep connection with yourself and others until the mood-state eventually passed. Maybe you couldn’t wait until that mood experience was over! Now, imagine a simple intervention that inspires the opposite bodily and emotional feelings, including invigoration, flexibility, creative risk-taking, team building, focus in the “now,” laughter, joy, and a bodily “letting loose.” These qualities can all be ignited via improvisational theater exercises or “improv” for short.
Improv is a type of community performance in which players spontaneously improvise dialogue and actions, flexibly building upon suggestions from the audience and the other team players in the scene. Many seasoned and well-known improv actors — including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert — have shared that while improv may have sparked their comedic careers, the greater benefit to the training was the catalytic personal growth that the principles of improv naturally galvanize.
Some of the powerful aspects of improv that therapeutically serve to shift moods are:
The concept of “Yes, And …” — a primary foundation of all improv exercises. No matter what is presented in the course of the exercise, each player’s response is a “yes” to that reality with a subsequent expansion into new realms. For example, if during an exercise a player holds out his or her empty hand to you and states that there is a “block of ice” sitting in it, a “Yes, And …” response would be to accept this reality of the “block of ice” and then add another element to it. This response could sound like, “Wow, that ice must be cold! Good thing your hand is coated in peanut butter insulation!” In contrast, a “no” response at any point (such as, “There’s no ice in your hand!”) would block the flow of the exercise and lead to a deflation of the creative energy and a negation of your team member. This “Yes, And …” approach teaches many things, including breaking through negative barriers, opening up new neural networks, and honing social connection. It trains each player to stay focused in the present moment, as you must be aware of what your team members are saying and doing to acknowledge and expand on what is happening. In terms of mood healing, according to Earl Vickers, “The ‘Yes, And …’ principle suggests a useful way of processing painful emotions. Instead of simply repressing such emotions (i.e., saying ‘no’), it may be better to experience these emotions fully (‘yes’), and then restructure them or cultivate new positive emotions (‘and’).”
The healing effect of whole body laughter. One common denominator during improv practice is that at some point laughter will bellow through the room. Improv exercises shift people out of their restrictive comfort zones and create unique experiences of silly play, sounds, and bodily postures. Laughter during improv is a supportive experience that is almost invariably “with” and not “at” each other. The physiological benefits of laughter are numerous and include reducing stress and tension, triggering “feel good” endorphin release in the brain, increasing oxygen flow to the organs, enhancing immunity, relieving pain, and relieving depression and anxiety.
Increased resilience and self-acceptance. Two sayings in improv are “mistakes are gifts” and “enter the danger.” There is no perfection in improv. The more someone is “trying” to be funny or an expert performer, the less effective, humorous, and relaxing the exercises are for everyone. The gift of each person is his/her willingness to present his/her vulnerable self and take spontaneous personal and creative risks in the exercises, with positive social support offered by one’s teammates for doing so. Instead of avoiding aspects of oneself, there is a moving into one’s bodily expression, emotions and life experiences to embrace all of who one is. Allowing for mistakes and vulnerable risk-taking also serves to confront one’s fear of failure and tendency to “over-think” life choices and moods, because in improv there is no time to over-process — only time to “act” and “do” and respond in the present moment to whatever is happening.
Through the practice of improv, spontaneous expressive energy is catalyzed. This infuses change and growth into “stuck systems,” including stuck moods and their concurrent bodily sensations. The fearful frozen throat becomes thawed with creative risk-taking. The sad heavy heart lightens with laughter. The irritating head pressure releases as energy and oxygen circulate throughout one’s whole body. The anxious butterflies in one’s stomach are faced, embraced, and moved through. Connection to others and oneself is enhanced.
If you would like to practice improv to help your own moods shift, here are resources that may be helpful:
- Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale, Michigan, offering classes, workshops, and shows. Website: gocomedy.net.
- The Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center and The Second City “Improv for Anxiety” program in Chicago, Illinois, offering a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and improv for treatment of anxiety. Website: www.beyondanxiety.com/improv.
- Website: learnimprov.com. Learn various types of improv exercises for self-study and fun with friends.
- I will be presenting periodic “Moving Through Moods with Improv” group workshops in the Ann Arbor area. See the events tab on my website (MichiganIntegrative.com) for details.
May every day include moments of improv — saying a wholehearted “Yes!” to all of who you are, taking spontaneous risks to be more of yourself, choosing opportunities for new creative expression, receiving support from others, and allowing laughter to bellow through your body.
Marnie Burkman, M.D., is an integrative psychiatrist who offers a blend of conventional, complementary, and alternative mental health care that honors, nurtures, and compassionately guides the healing of one’s body, mind, and spirit. She received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine and is board-certified in psychiatry and holistic medicine. Her private practice — Michigan Integrative Psychiatry — is part of the Aprill Wellness Center. She can be reached through her website: MichiganIntegrative.com