Social anxiety can make daily life difficult and depressing. It can short-circuit job interviews, turn parties into nightmares, and limit one’s ability to have successful relationships.
Most people have some degree of social anxiety depending on the situation, but some cases are severe enough to be considered social anxiety disorder, a condition officially designated in 1980. People with this disorder experience such extreme discomfort in social situations that they may start feeling anxious about a future social encounter weeks before it will happen. They often avoid situations if they think they’ll have to interact with people they don’t know and are continually afraid of embarrassing themselves.
Ironically, a certain activity requiring spontaneous social behavior—one that even socially comfortable people might be afraid to engage in—has been shown to be an effective therapy for people with severe social anxiety.
Improv Therapy Lets People with Social Anxiety Have the Last Laugh
A joint effort by the renowned Second City improv troupe and the Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center in Chicago is helping people paralyzed by encounters with others to find their social comfort zone. Known as Improv for Anxiety, this program uses physical, verbal, and creative strategies that help participants build confidence, defuse fears of rejection…and have a hilarious time. Improv can help anybody become more socially at ease, but it is especially therapeutic for those who avoid social situations, are afraid of being judged by others, and abhor being the center of attention.
Developed by therapist Dr. Mark Pfeffer—a graduate of the Second City improvisation training program—this eight-week workshop was launched in 2011 and is designed for people whose social anxiety has been resistant to other therapeutic approaches. A combination cognitive behavioral therapy session, improv workshop, and support group, the program involves exercises that help build confidence through games in a large group. One game: passing an imaginary red ball around while shouting “red ball.” In another exercise, one participant becomes a live “statue” within the group and has to hold the pose until another person joins in.
“Yes, and…”: A Key Part of the Improv Formula
Piero Procaccini, an instructor for the Second City Training Center, claims that an important part of improvisation is the “Yes, and…” principle. When a participant in an improv exercise says this to a partner, it conveys acceptance as well as invites collaboration—both of which can be very elusive for people with social anxiety. Other principles of improvisation include:
- Reserve judgment of yourself and others
- Be in the moment
- Focus on others
- Be willing to take action
Therapists use a form of the “Yes, and…” technique to help people better understand situations that are controlling or overwhelming them. As noted by Becca Barish—a social worker who works at the Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center—at a meeting of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “We can say to a client who mentions an unhealthy behavior, Yes, and…when you do that, what happens? Does it take you to a place you want to be?” This helps ratchet down the panic to something that can be discussed more rationally, which can then lead to a less emotionally charged response to the same situation in the future.
My Own Improv Experience: A Big Thumbs-Up!
Clinical studies that scientifically confirm the success of improvisation for social anxiety may be lacking. But Dr. Pfeffer can recount many cases of people who have made breakthroughs enabling them to leave their cocoons and achieve what had previously been impossible for them.
I can personally relate to this, having a long history as an introvert who has faced intense discomfort in social situations with people I didn’t know. About 10 years ago, I joined an improvisation workshop led by the talented acting teacher/coach Ellen Flaks. At first I was petrified of having to perform on the spot in a group, but Ellen created an atmosphere of such acceptance that my qualms faded away. The acceptance part is critical for people with social anxiety, because it helps dissolve fears of failing. Failure had no place in these workshops, which was truly liberating.
Sometimes stepping outside yourself makes it easier to be yourself. Maybe this is due to the realization that everybody, and almost any type of character you can dream up, has value. And playing off other characters that materialize in front of you can make spontaneity in the real world a lot more feasible.
I realized something else very important about myself during my five years in this workshop. My history of reluctance in social situations was based in large part on my need for “permission” to be who I am. I was continually waiting for a go-ahead that, of course, never comes in spontaneous social encounters, and it held me back from expressing myself. As I became more comfortable—in fact, in love—with my weekly improv classes, I realized that I could give myself permission to be who I am. It seems absurdly obvious to me now.
How much difference can improv therapy make in a social phobic’s life? “People are making life decisions that previously were unavailable to them, such as going on a job interview,” Dr. Preffer says about participants in the program. “Basically, they now have quality of life.”
How improv classes at The Second City in Chicago are helping people overcome social anxiety.