Using Improv Therapy to Treat Mental Illness

Throughout my graduate school training, I found myself intrigued by anxiety disorders, perhaps related in some manner to my own shyness as a child. I ultimately chose to focus my dissertation on Social Anxiety Disorder and specifically, in regard to alternative methods for treating anxiety rather than relying one some of the more traditional approaches. A recent trend in the field was utilizing the Internet as a way to reach individuals and I created an online self-help program. This was intended to address the access difficulties for those with social anxiety, as an inherent obstacle with the disorder involves getting someone into the office, as social interaction, interpersonal relationships and intimacy are some of the feared situations. However, access is only the starting point. Once someone is in your office asking for help, where do you go from there? The traditional approach involves Cognitive Behavioral Therapy including Exposure Therapy. But what if someone is not ready for that or if insight is not enough? Oftentimes insight is useful but it really comes down to taking action instead of continuing to think and ponder about something. That is where Improv Comedy makes its (dramatic) entrance!

As many of us can relate, speaking in front of a group is not usually a favorite activity, especially if you are supposed to be humorous! There was a time where I would never have imagined performing an Improv skit in front of anyone, or in particular in front of the entire group of clients, families and staff with whom I work. However, BrightQuest’s unique therapeutic community environment created a safe place to explore new opportunities and I was fascinated with how it was that Improv Comedy turned out to be so useful. In particular, how it fit for the variety of clientele in the program whether they were there due to their struggles with psychosis, depression, bipolar, anxiety, etc. To my surprise, I found myself volunteering to run the group, and have for the past two years! It is possible that my own anxiety and fears about performing helped me bond and relate to the clients, or bring a more genuine side to my work, whatever it was, it continues to be my favorite time of the week and our annual Talent Show is one of my favorite family gatherings.

So how does it work? Improv warm ups, skits and other techniques are used in conjunction with the various treatment issues. An example of this might be re-enacting a recent house conflict, yet doing so in extremely exaggerated fashion or with specific character traits or role-playing different endings to the conflict. Another might be using a theme throughout a few skits, such as a particular emotion, to guide the scene and practice emotional expression. The ultimate goal is to provide a venue and a safe space for trying out of different roles. Oftentimes there is discussion about typical family roles (enabler, peace-keeper, scapegoat, etc) and practicing a different role to see how it feels. Through all of this, there is a great deal of growth and self-exploration, which helps build that stronger stable sense of self and break free of former rigid rules and fears that hindered progress towards independence. In part, the humor, as well as the indirect targeting of treatment issues (such as how to get along with others or deal with conflict), provides a venue to grow and heal in a unique manner. It allows each member to explore and express their creative side and find unique strengths and talents that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.

I recently did a bit of research into humor and Improv being used in therapy and am pleased to see that there is more focus on these non-traditional methods, including the well-known Second City Improv Troupe offering a set of classes specifically to address anxiety. I have to say, any day I can laugh that hard, smile that much, and be part of the joy in connection that happens through humor, is a fantastic day! And hope you take a chance to try it out a little Improv too.

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people
~ Victor Borge