A few years ago, I talked myself out of going to a friend’s house party. What if I’m awkward? What if people don’t talk to me? What if I don’t talk to them? There were a lot of “what-ifs” on my mind. I wanted to go, but I was scared.
This is what life is like for many people with social anxiety. An estimated 12 percent of adults experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
In addition to social anxiety, I also suffer from a form of depression. My therapist calls it dysthymia, a low but chronic form of depression. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve faced elements of depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and hypersensitivity.
After seeking help, and opening up to my family and friends, I also sought ways to get out of my comfort zone and face my fears. To my surprise, I found out famous improv comedy company The Second City offers specialized classes for anxiety at its locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Many people who experience social anxiety find relief through through the classes, which started in 2012, said Becca Barish, head of The Second City’s wellness program.
“There are a wide range of people who take the class,” she said. “Some people come in for performance anxiety. This could include speaking at a meeting or having to give a presentation. For other people, it’s more interpersonal, whether it’s going on dates, networking or just meeting new people.”
If you suffer from social anxiety, performing is probably the last thing you want to do. But there are plenty of ways that improv can help.
We all have fears. “But when you have social anxiety, you tend to overthink and start avoiding the things you want to do,” Barish said. “When we avoid certain things, we’re essentially putting a label on ourselves that we can’t handle it.”
Two years ago, I hit a particularly low point. That’s when I decided to register for the improv for anxiety class. I felt as though I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
For years before that, I avoided most social situations, like my friend’s party. I panicked when I had to meet new people. I mostly kept to myself.
“Improv is a way to break the cycle of avoidance,” Barrish said.
“Let’s say I think to myself that I can’t think of things quickly on the fly. I’m likely going to avoid doing it. But with improv, I can do it through the lens of a game, so I can have fun doing it, and it helps me realize that I can do this.”
After all, she says, improv comedy teaches you to push past those feelings of self doubt. It teaches you to jump into games and situations without fear of judgement. And it teaches you to live in the moment.
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Improv comedy is all about being in the moment. After all, everything is made up on the spot. If you struggle with social anxiety, this might be your worst nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be.
When I walked into my first improv class, I had no idea what to expect.
One of the first icebreaker games we played was called penguin tag, which is exactly as it sounds: it’s tag but you waddle like a penguin as you play. The idea was to encourage you to be silly and not worry about how others would react.
But I was scared out of my mind.
“Sometimes, the anticipatory anxiety is worse than the thing itself,” Barish says.
And she’s right. So, I swallowed my nerves and jumped into the game. As I waddled like a penguin, I realized that not only was it not so bad, but, to my surprise, I actually loved it.
I loved being silly. I loved living life in the moment. I loved not caring or worrying about people’s reactions.
Don’t get me wrong: it can be scary not knowing what’s going to happen. But it’s not as scary as your brain makes it out to be. Through uncertainty, we realize that we’re much more capable than we think we are.
The Second City isn’t the only place to find community that will help with anxiety. While many theaters and organizations offer specialized improv classes for anxiety — like Curtain Up! Anxiety Down! in Atlanta, Stomping Ground Comedy Theater in Dallas and SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando, Florida — any improv comedy class will help you manage social anxiety and welcome uncertainty into your life. You just have to be open to getting your silly on.
After getting my first taste of improv in 2017, I instantly fell in love with it and finished the entire program at The Second City.
Since then, I’ve performed in shows and sets, where I’ve played the ghost of Robin Williams, bursting into the famous Prince Ali song from Aladdin, and crawled on the floor like a rat.
When you have social anxiety, you tend to isolate yourself. But improv forces you out of your shell.
After all, “people are very empowered when they see other people be silly and own it,” Barish said.
“They see other people go out of our comfort zone and that inspires them to get out of the comfort zone,” she said. “Improv creates a space for people to try that. You’re going to get more comfortable with being more uncomfortable.”
Samuel Dunsiger is a writer, mentor and comedian from Toronto, Canada. When not writing, he can be found in the fetal position, tearfully reflecting on his thoughts, and playing with his cat, Morrissey, whom he prefers more than most humans. You can find him on Twitter at @samdunsiger.