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How Making People Laugh Helped Me Conquer My Fear

Improv helped Rachel* kick public speaking and social anxiety in the teeth, and she’s not alone.

July 29, 2015

Photo: Milada Vigerova
Photo: Milada Vigerova, via UnSplash

For Rachel, the business-school professor’s feedback had fallen into a pattern. “I could sense that you were getting increasingly nervous as the presentation went on,” he had told her after a public-speaking segment in her digital marketing course at NYU’s Stern School of Business. To succeed in her chosen field, Rachel needed to do something to counteract her fear of public speaking, and she needed to do it relatively quickly.

Rachel — by any measure a bright, career-driven young woman — was in her last semester at Stern when she discovered and enrolled in an eight-week improv class at the Magnet Theater in New York City. To her, improv comedy would be another frontier in her battle against her own quiet nature. “I knew I needed to do something about it.”

Eight weeks later, she stood in front of her improv class, surrounded by 16 people gathered at the front of a bare, windowless classroom. It was the student group’s final class before their “graduation” show, and it was time to share. Each improv student had 60 seconds of the class’s undivided attention to speak, about anything he or she wanted. In her minute, Rachel detailed all the visible symptoms of anxiety that earned that feedback from her professor. Despite her hours of preparation, she admitted, “I felt my speaking pace quicken, my palms starting to sweat, my voice slightly shaking.”

Rachel’s dive into improv was strategic. Research shows that the ability to perform in front of an audience and the preparation required of such performances improve various types of cognition all over your brain. Training in music strengthens long-term memory and sequence learning; in dancing, observational skills; and in acting, semantic memory improvement. Meanwhile, the audience member’s own brains light up with blood flow and glucose consumption while viewing a performance. Not only does the performer’s shared experience trigger empathy with other audience members, but also, the viewer’s brain goes through the process of mentally simulating what is happening on stage. In the case of comedy, the brain goes through a fascinating step-wise process of first recognizing the unexpectedness of an action, statement, or situation and then rewarding itself with an emotional response for doing so. Every step of how jokes are formed and received moves through particular neural pathways. In other words, comedy makes people — both the performer and the audience — feel good, together.

Though she was never formally diagnosed with social anxiety, Rachel is one of many who fear situations that put them at the center of attention. Medical experts state that social anxiety disorder is likely far more prevalent in the United States than the 15 million Americans that have been diagnosed, due to the stigma associated with its symptoms. It is a persistent and chronic affliction that contributes to a person’s sense of belonging, and diagnosed or not, people with social anxiety are more likely to be depressed or turn to substance use. Those who seek help are typically treated with some combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and pharmacological interventions (usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). But those seeking more informal means of treatment, such as Rachel, may concoct their own therapy through weekly doses of exposure to anxiety-inducing situations. She turned to improv comedy, a performance art form based in quick thinking, laughter, and trust — in your troupe and your audience.

Modern psychologists have come to embrace the theory that the human mind creates patterns that shape our self-perceptions and reactions. This is a break from the past, when theorists like Freud argued that our neuroses were rooted in and shaped by our personalities, our relationships with our parents, and our basic drives like sex, anger, and death. Many years ago, the primary psychotherapeutic intervention for anxiety and depression was talk therapy (think leather couches, cardigans and the line, “And how did that make you feel?”). Nowadays, CBT is a preferred method for treatment, with or without drugs. Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a retired psychiatrist, states that CBT is less concerned with the origins of a patient’s negative self-beliefs and instead targets the patterns of thought that generate the emotional reaction to these beliefs. Additionally, studies have shown that for treatment of social phobia, group CBT sessions are even more effective than individual CBT sessions where patients learn strategies to cope with negative self-beliefs and then engage in activities that put these strategies to work. Had Rachel opted for this treatment, she may have spent each session coming up with some sort of mental hurdle-clearing jump, like telling herself that stakes were low for speaking up in class, and then she would practice it by standing up in front of a group session and sharing a story. (Sound familiar?)

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At this point, you may wonder how people like Rachel are all that different. This sounds like conditioning with practice, right? How different is the brain of a person dealing with social anxiety, anyway? What does a properly functioning neural pathway look like? Scientists have investigated the neurological causes of depression and anxiety by mapping regions of the brain that call upon oxygen reserves during emotional reactions and regulations. The region of the brain most active in forming an emotional reaction is the amygdala, one of the oldest parts of the human brain. But the amygdala activates regions within the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to regulate these emotional reactions. Neural pathways in the PFC are triggered by the amygdala to regulate our initial response to our surroundings. Among social anxiety patients, this loop of reaction and regulation is incomplete or improperly wired. Basically, their neural pathways don’t allow them to get to a point where they can easily think, “There’s nothing to worry about!” Without this loop, performers, artists, and professionals would constantly feel too threatened by their surroundings to share art or communicate ideas.

The cost of that threat is real. Given that social phobia and other mental illnesses carry a strong stigma, innovators have started to redesign how care is accessed and delivered. One such access point is an online service called Joyable. Charging a monthly fee of $99, Joyable does not claim to be a direct competitor to licensed therapists, but offers a course of sessions rooted in CBT but framed as a coaching service. Founder and CEO Peter Shalek lamented in The Atlantic this May, “I believe mental health is the single biggest waste of human potential in the developed world.” It may sound hyperbolic, but the economics of depression and treatment have been explored in studies before, and as The Atlantic article points out, the National Institute of Mental Health “estimates 28.8 percent of Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.” At any rate, the issue won’t be fixed by letting it go untreated.

Over coffee, Rachel told me about her childhood. She recalls teachers who told her to “speak up” and waves of nerves before piano recitals. Rachel also recalled her Taiwanese mother, who she felt never reached her full potential in her career because of her quiet nature. For Rachel, completing an improv comedy class was an important step in unlocking her own potential as a young professional in a way that her mother never had.

On the day of the “graduation” show for Level 1 Improv at the Magnet Theater, all 17 players showed up 30 minutes early to loosen up and run practice scenes. The theater featured a clapboard stage — the only area in the room that was lit up — and a nightmare for someone with social phobia. Afterward, Rachel admitted, “I almost didn’t show up to the final show, but I’ve never felt so strong and confident as I did afterwards. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in New York City.”

* The “Rachel” of this story asked that her name be changed prior to publication, due to the fact that, even in 2015, mental illness still carries a stigma. Let’s all work toward a world where it doesn’t. For more information on mental illness, definitely check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness and if you think you need help, try their helpline. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more from Outcryer, follow us on Facebook or on Twitter.

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