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What Hope Looks Like: How Teens Benefit From Improvisation Training




by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
On day #1 of a week-long teen bereavement camp, our group work had a singular goal: get the kids to come back for day #2. Most were pressured by a family member or therapist to give the camp a fair try but after that it was up to us. Issues of loss combined with the relentless honesty with which teens will respond to anything counseling-related added to the degree of difficulty. But they did come back, because the radical engagement possible through Applied Improvisation transformed 14 anxious, highly self-protective strangers into an emotionally-connected group in just a few hours. In high-pressure therapeutic environments like this camp, as in psychotherapy or school counseling settings, the connectivity and creativity that power improvisation are an ideal match for adolescents' developmental needs. We can see the results of using these methods in the way the kids bond and build one another up, and in their feedback long after groups are over. And it helps that there is also science that explains why it works so well.
     Research published by the National Institutes of Health determine that a teen's prefrontal cortex - the reasoning part of the brain that can think long-term and make rational choices - is still under construction, while emotional responsiveness is greatly heightened. This is a bit like driving with urgency on a road at the same time it is being built, making every bump and hurdle upsetting in the extreme. "When teenagers perform certain tasks, their prefrontal cortex, which handles decision-making, is working much harder than the same region in adults facing the same circumstances," writes Scientific American writer Leslie Sabbagh in The Teen Brain, Hard At Work. "The teen brain also makes less use of other regions that could help out. Under challenging conditions, adolescents may assess and react less efficiently than adults." 
    A teen's first language is feelings - which can come in a flood-like sense of immediacy and intensity. Action methods like improvisation are also intense and immediate. Bold, committed moves are encouraged. Interactions are dynamic and become a channel that translates feelings into thoughts and choices. Improvised experiences follow feelings while at the same time helping to understand and give context to them with full-bodied emotional support. As an example, after a particularly poignant exercise which prompted one of our campers to reveal that her mom had died of suicide and not cancer as she had told us at the start, the kids surrounded her, unprompted, forming a caring, protective huddle. When we processed the experiential exercise, what developed in the room and the meaning this had for the kids, she said she will always remember the image of these empathetic faces moving toward her after she bared her most raw, wounded self. She said "that is what hope looks like."

Improvisation training links social-emotional experiences with creativity and the "reward" chemistry of the brain.

     Teens are working through brain changes that render them much more vulnerable to emotional overload as well as their approval rating with peers, which makes fun, positive social experiences essential for general well-being and necessary for digging into difficult, real-life problems. "Functional brain imaging studies suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are heightened relative to younger children and adults," according to researchers. "The brain changes underlying these patterns involve brain centers and signaling molecules that are part of the reward system with which the brain motivates behavior. These age-related changes shape how much different parts of the brain are activated in response to experience, and in terms of behavior, the urgency and intensity of emotional reactions." 
     Because improvisation is an unpredictable adventure that involves interaction with others, it rides along on a current of curiosity - a state of mind in which we are more interested in discovery than in any particular outcome. "Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," states Dr.  Matthias Gruber, lead researcher on a study published in the journal NeuronThe study found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. "We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation. This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger that relays messages between neurons." Dopamine is the "feel-good" brain chemical triggered by success especially after effort, such as when we win at a game, feel loved, earn a high grade, exercise, or get paid for work.  Creative experiences engage the "reward" brain circuitry because the elements of novelty, surprise and emotional expression that involve effort and engagement trigger this biochemical "charge."  Improv games and exercises combine curiosity with the emotional support teens need to go out on a limb and try out new parts of self.


Improvisation is healthy risk-taking.
Teen's brains have a heightened sensitivity to reward feedback especially from their peers, according to research published in Current Directions In Psychological Science, one of the reasons they are more prone to risky behavior when they hang out together. The creative and emotional risks taken in improvisation hijack teens' natural desires to impact one another and dedicates them to thinking and problem-solving skills. Creative experiences are the fast-track to expanding neuronal connections throughout the brain, because they integrate diverse brain circuitry in a single action or phase of skill development. The bonus of the "reward" make a behavior more appealing and increase the likelihood we will want to do it again. 

Improvisation rules are guidelines for healthy relationships.
    Every human interaction involves some degree of risk. The desire to connect carries with it knowledge we may be rejected, misunderstood, or humiliated. And the perception of psychological threat that s a natural response to being "on the spot" in an improvisation game or exercise is related to that underlying risk. There is no better playground than an improvisation group to work on ways to power through that anxiety and learn interpersonal skills. 
     One of the principles that drives successful improvisation is "make your partner look
good." While we can neither predict nor control anything in an improv situation, we are constantly called upon to contribute. The improv "rule" is to add something simple and specific to our partner or to the scene, and never ever worry about being inventive, or entertaining or even interesting. Following this improv rule is a practice that, almost paradoxically, frees us up to be and express our individuality. One of the most powerful lessons anyone can learn through improv is that what drives our anxiety and fear in a scene is what creates so much stress and defensiveness in relationships: the need to look good, to "be" something to other people that we may not even be able to define or understand but we know when we feel it. The brain freeze takes hold when the search for some external validation grabs hold of our brain. But redirecting the need for approval or to impress others to make our partner look good is a way to free ourselves of the internal editors. The internal judges are given a different agenda: Did we show up? Did we contribute?  
   The improv principle is that we are all supporting players. Good partnerships - in improvisation or in real life - build on this rule because everyone involved is willing to redirect defensive, self-protection toward co-creation. When there is reciprocity there is rich, productive creative collaborations that occur on the spot. Once teens know how it feels to be part of groups like this, they have a model for what to look for in friends and partners and how to function in a healthy social environment. They learn about their strengths and begin to see what they have to offer the world. 
    The ability to manage emotions and maintain social connections are critical elements of a satisfying life for an adolescent and set the tone for his/her future. Improv is an exercise in having fun with uncertainty, in taking risks that realize intangible but life-long rewards. No one knows what will happen next, but there is a wealth of psychological strength available just from knowing what hope looks like. 

Read "Why Teens Hate Therapy" on Psychotherapy Networker.org

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant, and writer/performer. She designs and facilitates creative professional development workshops and is President of Lifestage, Inc which is a New York State- approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers, provider #0270. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a live show and audience-interactive game that features true stories-with a twist-told by people from all walks of life. 






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