Why Would An Anxious Person Improvise?

Improv first came on my radar in 2009 when I was studying to become a teacher. I received feedback that I needed to work on my speaking-in-front-of-people skills, and that I should try either Toastmasters or improv. Toastmasters? I knew someone who had done Toastmasters and seemed to like it. Sure, I’d look into it. But improv? It was a no-brainer: absolutely not.  

The main reason I didn’t even consider trying improv is that I am an anxious person. It’s difficult for me not to worry or ruminate. But when I moved to Chicago and began taking improv classes as a way to meet people (more on that here), I had no idea that improv can be a means of easing anxiety. That seems unlikely, right? Getting up in front of people and performing surely doesn’t make anyone’s Top Ten list of ways to calm one’s nerves.

But I think there is a difference between being nervous and being anxious. To me, feeling nervous is something that comes naturally during situations that either cause temporary stress or are in some way emotionally stimulating. For instance, you might feel a little nervous as you’re getting ready to go out on a first date.  Or, your phone rings and you see the person calling is the head of HR from the place where you just interviewed. You will probably feel nervous when you answer that call.  

If nervousness is akin to feeling butterflies flit in your stomach, then anxiety can feel like termites gnawing at your soul.  When I feel anxious, I worry incessantly, second-guess myself, and ruminate over past mistakes.

There’s no time for all that in improv.  You are forced to stay completely in the present, listening to what your scene partner has to say and at the same time anticipating what your response might be. You concentrate so intensely that there is no space to think of anything else. 

It’s not that improv can “cure” anxiety, but it can provide an outlet where you simply can‘t feel anxious. You might perform in a show and feel nervous beforehand – and maybe even during it - but you’re so “in the moment,” that there is no space for worry or rumination.  

There are even series of improv classes dedicated to helping people cope with anxiety: the Second City Training Center in Chicago has such a program. I never went through the program myself, in part because I only learned about it once I had begun the regular track of beginning improv courses at Second City. However, I became friends with a number of people who went through that program, called “IFAX.”

My next blog post will contain conversations I had with people who took those classes.

© 2019 Kate James
Kate James is not to be confused with the other Kate James who also used to improvise in Chicago and now also lives in California.

Kate Jamesimprov, anxietyComment