More and more people are discovering the power of improv to help them overcome anxiety, that it’s OK to make mistakes, and in fact, life’s way more fun when you laugh and embrace them instead of striving for unattainable perfection.
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For ten years, I watched helplessly as Cameron spiralled downward into anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression. Just the thought of doing stuff outside his comfort zone made him physically ill – and everything was outside his comfort zone.
So how did he go from sick and scared to an improv ninja who now teaches others how to overcome anxiety?
Find out, in this funny and inspiring series of posts he wrote for his blog. If you’ve ever thought being anxious was a life sentence, this is for you:
“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau
Cameron got let go (“restructured” in advertising parlance) a couple of weeks ago. And while we never could have predicted it when 2013 began, it’s quite possibly the greatest gift he’s ever been given.
When we met 15 years ago, Cameron was a bright young intern and I was a disillusioned senior writer.
“Don’t waste your time in this stupid fucking industry,” I said, even as I helped him put his portfolio together.
Not long after, I was fired (sorry, “restructured”), and Cameron was still unemployed. But I was totally smitten by this incredibly smart, incredibly funny person who, it turned out, was also incredibly anxious.
Slowly, I learned that Cameron had a deep-seated fear of crowds, strangers, going out in public, and pretty much anything that involved the unfamiliar.
For seven years he sank deeper into anxiety and depression. And yet through it all, his sense of humour shone like the sun through a summer storm.
Whether he was imitating a cheesy boy band video*, or re-enacting some bizarre thing that happened at work, I’d be doubled over with laughter.
“You should be a comedian!” I blurted. But almost immediately, I dismissed it. It was too far fetched, given Cameron’s fragile physical and emotional state.
Finally in desperation we saw a psychiatrist, who suggested Cameron learn improv.
I balked. Cameron couldn’t walk to the subway without having a panic attack. How the hell was he supposed to get up in front of strangers and be funny? But Cameron surprised me by finding the courage to enrol at Second City, and I went with him.
One day in Level A, we were learning “Make A Story” when the teacher pointed to Cameron. He looked down, shook his head, then threw up his hands in defeat and mumbled “Squirrel?”
Everyone laughed, and the teacher said, “See? The comedy gods gave Cam the word ‘squirrel.’ And it’s perfect!”
That was eight years ago.
The support and encouragement we received from instructors, the friends we’ve made, and the things we’ve learned have changed our lives completely.
I was going through some old files last night, and found a performance review from Cameron’s old workplace. It was during the dark days, just weeks after he signed up for Second City.
His boss commented on Cameron’s shyness and poor presentation skills, then made some notes for improvement, ending with the words, “Improvise. Take chances.”
Sometimes the universe is telling us something, but we don’t listen because we’re afraid.
One more thing:
A week before he was let go, Cameron put together a workshop. The theme?
We may not know what the future holds, but we’re letting go of needing to control it. And trusting that it’s in the benevolent hands of the comedy gods.
*(“Tonight” by Soul Decision)
John Hodgman spoke recently about how Stephen Colbert overcame embarrassment by doing embarrassing things in public, until it no longer bothered him.
This makes perfect sense.
Whether he’s bobsledding in skintight Spandex, or telling George Bush to his face what a douche he is, Colbert’s commitment to character is unflinching.
But for some people, fear of embarrassment can be debilitating.
Katagelophobia is the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or (ironically for comedians) of being laughed at.
I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s anxiety-ridden past. For years he suffered from daily panic attacks, cold sweats, vomiting, eczema, coughing, diarrhea…you name it. Finally in desperation, we went to a shrink.
The therapist, it turned out, had problems of his own. But he said two things that completely changed Cameron’s life – and mine, too.
First, he suggested Cameron take up improv. And second, he said that most anxiety comes from a fear of embarrassment.
We left the therapist after only a few sessions, but Cameron enrolled at Second City. And he did something else that helped him, in improv and in life: he started doing “embarrassing” things, like purposely tripping and stumbling in front of strangers.
At first he would blush and get cold sweats. But he kept on doing it, day after day, until he actually looked for excuses to do silly things in public.
Today he’s so happy, calm and confident that people who didn’t know the “old” Cameron are flabbergasted to learn he wasn’t born fearless.
Disapproval Starts With You
Fear of embarrassment often comes from wanting approval. (“I hope I don’t fuck up on stage tonight. I’ll never be able to show my face again!”)
I’ve seen wanting approval cripple a lot of funny people, especially at festivals, where they put extra pressure on themselves to be brilliant.
Worrying about what your audience thinks is a surefire way to get in your head. When you worry, you judge, and it’s a fast trip to Suckville from there.
Richard Burton used to stand backstage before performances and whisper, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” to the audience. If you can let go on needing approval, you’ll have a much better show. And a helluva lot more fun.
Some people say anxiety before a performance is good, even necessary. I say bullshit. I’ve done plenty of crappy shows where I was nervous beforehand, and just as many good ones where I wasn’t.
It’s natural for some adrenaline to kick in before going on stage, but if having your girlfriend in the audience makes you jittery, click here for some exercises that can help.
Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
One of my favourite sketches of all time is the Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s so quintessentially British. And yet as John Cleese said, “The aim of any good English gentleman is to get safely to his grave without ever having been embarrassed.”
To err is human. And life’s too short to worry what other people think. Chances are, they’re busy worrying what you think of them.
So if anxiety about making the wrong move, or even just looking stupid in public is holding you back, try looking stupid on purpose. It works.
To hear Hodgman talk about Colbert, click here.
Colbert kissing David Razowsky while Steve Carell watches at Second City’s 50th anniversary.
Cold hands. Sweaty pits. Pre-show shits.
Celebrities aren’t the only ones who get stage fright. Plenty of gifted, seasoned improvisers suffer from pre-show anxiety. TJ Jagodowski spoke movingly about his battle with it in this 2008 interview.
Me, I had panic attacks onstage.
I’d be fine in the green room, OK in the opening, but as soon as I stepped into a scene my legs would start shaking. Sometimes I’d hear a ringing sound, then the stage would turn white at the edges. Meanwhile my scene partner was no doubt trying to interpret my glassy-eyed stare and statue-like stance as a character choice. Sometimes I’d try and get to a chair, but most of the time I just stood there praying to God for someone to edit.
If you feel anxious or shaky before (or during) shows, here are some proven techniques that can help.
We’re a nation of shallow breathers, and anxiousness often results in shortness of breath. Breath Awareness is a simple yet powerful exercise you can do anywhere.
Find a place where you can sit comfortably for a few minutes. Close your eyes and notice whatever is being experienced in the moment: sounds, physical sensations, thoughts or feelings, without trying to do anything about them. Continue to do this for a minute or so, allowing yourself to settle down.
Now bring your attention to your breath. Simply notice the breath as it moves in and out of your nose, as the body inhales and exhales. Notice how the breath moves automatically, without any effort from you. Don’t try to change your breathing; just breathe normally and observe it.
Notice all the details of the experience of breathing: the feeling of the air moving in and out of the nose, the way the body moves as it breathes.
You’ll find your mind will wander away from the breath. That’s OK. When you notice your attention is no longer on your breathing, just bring your attention back to it.
Let all your experiences — thoughts, emotions, body sensations, awareness of sounds and smells — come and go in the background of your awareness of the breath.
Just doing this can lower your heart rate and calm you.
If you don’t have time to do this exercise (say, you’re backstage and they’re announcing your team), you can always do basic deep breathing.
Just inhale and hold the breath for a count of five, then exhale slowly for five counts. Repeat five times, or as often as you need to.
Talk To The Hands
Many performers’ hands are like ice before shows, and some experience cold hands or “cold sweats” in day-to-day life as well.
For years we blamed Cameron’s cold hands on poor circulation, air conditioning, or low body fat. Hands and feet are bony, after all. It makes sense they’d be colder, right?
Then we discovered the connection between feeling cold and feeling anxious.
Wearing gloves, rubbing your hands together, and holding them under hot water just aren’t very effective. The good news is, the following method is.
Sit or stand someplace quiet, and take a few deep breaths. Become aware of your heart beating, experiencing the feeling of it in your chest.
Once you can sense your heart, move your awareness to your hands. Concentrate on them (look at them if it helps), and feel the pulse of your heartbeat in your hands. Now introduce the intention to increase the blood flow to your hands. Just have the thought in your mind, “I’m sending more blood to my hands.”
If your hands are very cold or stiff, this may take a few minutes. Relax and stay focused. As you do, you’ll notice warmth, tingling, or other sensations in your hands. Introduce the intention of increasing warmth, so your hands become warmer and warmer. Feel the warmth as your intention alone increases the blood flow.
By doing this on a regular basis, Cameron went from having icicle fingers to me nicknaming him “Hot Hands.” Even in winter, when I grab his hand I know it’ll be warm, if not downright toasty.
Meditate, Feel Great
I know what you’re thinking. “Unh-uh. Not for me. I’m not into chanting mantras and dressing like Yanni.”
Well, relax. These days there are dozens of great guided meditations available online. Meditating for even a few minutes before a show can free you of the pressure we often put on ourselves to perform. The Breath Awareness exercise is actually a short meditation.
Don’t Fight Fear, Embrace It
Perhaps the thing that’s helped me and Cameron the most is something called The Sedona Method.
Instead of fighting emotions like fear, which only creates more resistance, it teaches you how to allow what you’re feeling, so you can let it go.
Cameron suffered for years from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. It ruled his every waking moment, and made something as simple as going to the store to buy groceries a gauntlet of pain and fear. He credits Sedona – along with improv – with giving him back his life. In fact, his life is more joyful now than anything he’d experienced before.
There are many different techniques for practicing Sedona, but one that I use quite often is a Holistic Release. If you find yourself getting nervous at any point, ask yourself,
“Can I feel as closed, and as tense, and as constricted (or anxious, or whatever else you want to call what you’re feeling – they’re all just labels anyway) as I do?”
Don’t try to tense up your body more than it already is; just allow whatever sensations you’re experiencing to be here, in this moment.
Once you’ve welcomed the feeling or feelings, ask yourself,
“Can I feel as open, and as relaxed, and as calm as I do?”
You’ll find that even when your muscles are tense and your heart is racing, there’s a part of you that is “outside” all of the tension. Allow yourself to tap into that feeling of calm. Then continue to ask yourself the two questions, alternating back and forth, allowing yourself to feel all the sensations that are present. As you do, you’ll notice that the two extremes become less and less, until they both feel pretty much the same.
Sedona is simple, powerful, and you can do it anywhere, anytime, even with your eyes open. We highly recommend the audio program, because Hale Dwoskin, the co-creator, is so much fun to listen to.
Sedona’s not just for dealing with anxiety, either. It’s great for allowing yourself just to be, in every area of your life. You can read more about it here.
For more information on dealing with anxiety, check out one of Cameron’s “Laugh In The Face Of Fear” workshops at playwithfireimprov.com.