Stress management is a big industry these days. Whether its relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, mindfulness or therapy, there are many options for how we can better manage our stress and anxiety in life. When lawyers come to talk with me about how to manage their anxiety and stress more effectively, they often expect to be told to practice some mindfulness or deep breathing technique (which are great by the way, so yes, please do them). But for some types of stress and anxiety, a different approach can be more effective, and more fun.
The comedy style of Improv is not only fun to watch, but it can also be a life-changing exercise. Improv has become a popular group activity for team building in organizations. I see Improv advertisements for group classes that make the pitch that an Improv experience can help build cooperation in a management team, encourage leadership development, or increase healthy risk-taking. I see some additional benefits of Improv. I find myself often recommending Improv for individual use to help with anxiety and stress. With Improv, the rules are few, the structure is loose, and creativity is key. This style of performing requires quick thinking, since by definition it eliminates the possibility of preparation. One of the foundations of Improv is a technique known as “Yes, and…” The idea behind “Yes, and…” is to fully accept anything that your fellow participants present to you and build off of it. There is no convincing the other players to change what they said or did, there is no going back to make edits, there are no “shoulds”, and there is no time for regrets. While the idea of performing in front of people can strike fear into the hearts of many, using a technique such as “Yes, and…” can be very helpful in learning to accept the things we cannot control and to spend our energy on the things within our control.
Much like the Serenity Prayer asks for wisdom to distinguish the difference between what you can and cannot control, Improv helps you put that into practice by developing your confidence in your ability to deal with whatever is thrown at you and respond with creative options. This is an example of resilience. The more resilient we feel, the more prepared we are to handle whatever comes our way.
The more we direct our energy toward the things we can control, the more likely our stress and anxiety decrease. The more confidence we have in our ability to respond to whatever comes our way, the more likely our stress and anxiety decrease. The less seriously we take ourselves, the more likely our stress and anxiety decrease. Improv can help you take yourself less seriously and prepare you to strengthen your ability to respond to the unexpected in creative and effective ways. While you will probably not use this literal technique in your professional interactions as a lawyer (because agreeing without question to whatever is presented to you by opposing counsel is not a good practice), practicing improvisational games can help you become more comfortable responding to the unexpected.
Shawn Healy, PhD