Laughter is definitely the best medicine

Sam improv 2

We’ve all heard the old adage “Laughter is the best medicine.” For me, it holds true.

You would think getting into improv would be one of the last things I would want to do, especially as someone who suffers from generalized anxiety and depression. Talk about uncertainty.

For years, I was struggling. I was unhappy. My therapist has called it dysthymia, a mild but chronic depression.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve faced elements of depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and hypersensitivity. There have been occasions when I would be afraid to leave the house over a debilitating fear that something bad may happen. There have been occasions when I’ve cried myself to sleep. There have been occasions when I felt as though I didn’t want to live. There have been occasions where I’ve felt unloved and I put a smile on my face even though I was not smiling on the inside. I was isolating myself and pushing people away. I was unhappy. I was anxious. No one around me even knew — at least, I think they didn’t know.

I knew I wanted to change. I sought help. I opened up to my friends and family about how I was feeling — I still remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her how unhappy I was.

I also wanted to branch out and find new interests. Last year, I decided to take the improv for anxiety class at Second City Toronto.

At first, I was terrified at the thought of doing improv. But I decided to jump in. One of the first icebreaker games we played was penguin tag, which is exactly as it sounds; it’s tag but you waddle like a penguin as you play. It was fun.

I immediately loved this new world I got into. I loved jumping into scenes. I loved making a fool of myself (something I do quite a bit of anyways). I loved the community of interesting and supportive people.

For the next eight months after that, I found myself taking more classes and getting more involved in the improv community. Now, I even joined an improv troupe (suitably named Coffee Breath) and started performing.

Over the past year, I realized just how much improv has improved my wellbeing. Naturally, the more I got into it, the better I started to feel about myself. I was feeling confident. I was having fun. Here are a few takeaways that I’ve picked up through improv:

You learn how to stay mentally present.

A constant struggle for people with anxiety is staying in the moment. I mean, it’s hard to keep your focus when you’re constantly worrying about something. One of the first games we played in class, called Red Ball, incorporated the need to stay focused. Actually, it’s a lot like mindfulness.

You learn how to cope with – even embrace – uncertainty.

Improv is about dealing with the unexpected. After all, everything is made up on the spot. When you struggle with anxiety, this might be your worst nightmare. But trust me: it teaches you to tolerate and even welcome uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps things interesting and improv teaches you to have fun with it.

Your presence alone is enough.

In improv, it doesn’t really matter what we say or do, so long as we’re there to keep things moving – even if it moves in another direction. While we may doubt ourselves or question our worth in our daily lives, sometimes our presence alone is enough.

It’s actually okay to make mistakes.

Mistakes aren’t just tolerated in improv. They’re celebrated.  Improv is mostly about being weird and silly anyways. And every mistake is an opportunity.  It’s how we learn and grow.

You learn self-awareness.

Improv teaches us to be in touch with our emotions. In my first class, we started off by simply walking around the room and paying attention to our breathing. Then our instructor asked us to make eye contact with others as we’re walking. Then, she asked us to wink at them. Finally, she asked us to stop and scream (and quite loudly) to each other. With each layer added, we paid attention to how our breathing changed and how we felt. She asked us how to embrace our anxieties and our vulnerabilities.

Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle but I’m okay with that. Thanks to improv, I’m okay with the uncertainty. And hey, there’s always penguin tag.