Improvisational comedy, or simply, “improv”, has been around for decades. You’ve probably seen it on the internet or on popular television shows. It is all about working with others to make scenes or play games with a humorous twist on them. Improv is a lot of fun, and usually very entertaining! But what you may not know is that improv can have a role in therapy. With the right games, improv can help you grow your brain, expand your social skills, help you deal with the uncomfortable better and so much more. And that’s not to mention the healing power of laughter! Let’s take a look at so-called “improv therapy” to see how improv and mental health go together.
History of Improv
First, a little background on the history of improv. Improv seemingly has evolved passing through the hands of many individuals. The first individual was Viola Spolin, who created several improv games in her role as “drama supervisor” at Hull House in Chicago in the 30s in order to “help empower [immigrants] to become more spontaneous, less self-conscious and to build a supportive community” (2016). Next came her son, Paul Sills, who grew up playing the games and created improv shows at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. He founded multiple improv companies including the Second City, which has since produced countless stars such as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and John Belushi. Next came Del Close in the late 60s, who was trained by Paul Sills at the Second City and laid improvisational foundations in San Francisco, where his name is still revered today. He is often referred to as “a visionary and giant of the improvisational theater movement” (2016). Since then, improv has spread the country, from city to city to stage and television.
Improv & Mental Health
1 – Improv Can Improve The Brain’s Neuroplasticity
So improv has a rich history – how can it help you in a therapeutic setting? One thing that improv can help with is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, as defined by VeryWellMind as ”the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to experience. It is an umbrella term referring to the brain’s ability to change, reorganize, or grow neural networks. This can involve functional changes due to brain damage or structural changes due to learning.” (Cherry). The brain’s ability to adapt and grow provides opportunities to both make repairs when there has been some sort of damage and to learn new things, acquire new skills and create new habits. Therapeutically this can be beneficial for those who have encountered cognitive losses due to things like trauma but additionally develop coping skills or replacing maladaptive habits with new ones. Improv games like the Alphabet Game and “What Are You Doing” work to stretch the brain and help it grow, letting neurons that fire together, wire together allowing for growth and recovery.
2 – Improv Can Be A Useful Tool When Using Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
A major form of therapy used by counselors today is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. According to Psychology Today, DBT is “a structured program of psychotherapy with a strong educational component designed to provide skills for managing intense emotions and negotiating social relationships” (Dialectical behavior therapy). DBT focuses on providing skills in 4 different areas: Mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. While true DBT is a committed program with a very in-depth structure, Counselors often use the 4 different areas in their own way to work towards therapeutic progress. Therapy using Improv tends to focus on 2 of the four domains: mindfulness and distress tolerance.
3 – Improv Helps You Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined by mindful.org as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”(Mindful.org, 2023). Improv requires you to be fully present, at all times. When you’re playing an improv game, you’re not dwelling on the issues of the past nor dreading events of the future; improv requires you to be fully present. Distractions during improv can pull you out of the game and cause you to mess up, leading to the unraveling of the game itself. Improv is an opportunity to rehearse mindfulness skills, keeping your mind in the moment at all times. While some therapeutic interventions have specific games that benefit them, every improv game is helpful in developing mindfulness skills, because all improv requires mindfulness.
4 – Improv Can Help Develop Distress Tolerance
Marsha M. Linehan, the key figure in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, described distress tolerance as “A person’s ability to manage an emotional incident without feeling overwhelmed“ (Linehan, 2017). Improv is a great way to develop the capacity to withstand stressful situations for many people- especially anxious individuals. Performing improv and playing improv games requires you to think on your feet and can at first feel like a lot of pressure. That kind of pressure can cause distress for many first time players. However, in the therapeutic and improv setting, people can rehearse coping with the stress of performing in a low stakes and silly environment. Yes, the first couple of times doing improv can be stressful due to the pressure, but in improv, messing up is part of the fun! Additionally, the safety of a therapeutic environment allows for people to practice distressing improv without worrying about what others will say. Like mindfulness, more or less every game helps with distress tolerance, but particular games that are beneficial include Yes-And Adventure, Pocket Line and One Word Story.
The Healing Power of Laughter
In addition to specific, clinical areas where improv can help, the role of laughter in our mental health cannot be overstated. Akimbekov & Razzaque refer to laughter as a “nonpharmacologic intervention”, equated with yoga, music, massage and even spiritual practice as means to support mental wellness, further stating that it is an effective option for combatting anxiety and stress (Akimbekov & Razzaque, 2021). One expert said that “Laughter decreases serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, and 3, 4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid”, all chemicals related to stress in the body and mind (Yim, 2016). There is probably a lot of anecdotal evidence in your life, too. Have you ever had a stressful day and gone home to put on your favorite comedic movie to feel better? How many times has a friend told a joke to you to cheer you up? Improv is inherently silly, and that silliness can translate to huge benefits in the therapeutic setting.
People within both the professional counseling and comedy worlds see the benefits of improv in therapy. Comedian and Improv for Therapists instructor Brian Reed states, “When improvising in any applied space, we establish ‘I got your back’ along with ‘Yes and’. We enter not only a safe space, but a brave space, to navigate into, or outside of, our own individual comfort zones. It’s through this spontaneity where we can be truly re-formed into ourselves, as Viola Spolin would say, and that the healing power of laughter happens.”
All in all, improv is a great addition to any therapist’s strategies for practice. After all, who doesn’t love to laugh? When used in conjunction with more traditional theories like CBT and DBT, improv can help clients in ways that other forms of therapy can’t. Improv as an art form brings joy to many people, and improv as a therapeutic intervention can bring client’s happiness as well.
Akimbekov, N. S., & Razzaque, M. S. (2021). Laughter therapy: A humor-induced hormonal intervention to reduce stress and anxiety. Current Research in Physiology, 4, 135–138. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.crphys.2021.04.002
A brief history: Laughter for a change. Laughter For A Change | Laughter For A Change. (2016, June 12). Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.laughterforachange.org/about-us/improv-history/
Cherry, K. (n.d.). How brain neurons change over time from life experience. Verywell Mind. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-2794886
Linehan, M. M. (2017). Dbt Skills Training Manual. Guilford.
Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Dialectical behavior therapy. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/dialectical-behavior-therapy
What is mindfulness? Mindful.org. (2023, January 6). Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/
Yim, J. E. (2016). Therapeutic benefits of laughter in mental health: A theoretical review. The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 239(3), 243–249. https://doi.org/10.1620/tjem.239.243