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Reimagining and Reframing Anxiety Through Improvisation workshop hand-out

Workshop designed and facilitated by Jude Treder-Wolff

"Because it is possible to create, one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Creating actualizes one's possibilities, always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living. If one does not do this, one is refusing to grow, refusing to avail himself of his possibilities; one is shirking his responsibility to himself." Soren Kierkagaard, quoted on Maria Popova's wonderful website

 Anxiety has a vital function for human beings, who evolved with almost none of the physical survival capacities of other mammals - like big claws, the ability to run and climb at amazing speed, thick fur or razor sharp teeth - but instead are endowed with this big thinking brain that can design a probe to land on an asteroid flying through space but sometimes cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined threat. Psychologist and researcher Todd Kashdan makes a compelling case, based on a decade of research, for a parallel between anxiety, which is a search for potential threats, and curiosity, which drives attention to what is new and interesting. Some of these research findings are:

Higher curiosity uniquely predicted greater interpersonally-generated Positive Affect." It was shown to predict interpersonally generated Positive Affect as a function of an expanded attentional focus to interaction partners and their behavior. "Affect Outcomes In Superficial and Intimate Interactions: Roles of Social Anxiety and Curiosity" Journal of Research In Personality

"Curiosity prompts proactive, intentional behaviors in response to stimuli and activity with the following properties: novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict. Curiosity has relevance to nearly all facets of human functioning and personal growth." "Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities" Journal of Personality Assessment

Helping people recognize the long-term consequences of unsatisfied, residual curiosity is important to future work on the nature and consequences of approach-avoidance conflicts. This study's findings suggest that "understanding the psychological functioning and behavior patterns of socially anxious people requires attention to approach and avoidance processes within the same study....People with greater social anxiety showed co-existing recognition of threats and reward incentives and thus, approach-avoidance conflicts about whether to participate. These approach-avoidance conflicts were more intense for social interactions but there also was evidence of effects for non-social risk taking behaviors."  "Social Anxiety and Disinhibition: An Analysis of Curiosity and Social Rank Appraisals, Approach-Avoidance Conflicts, Disruptive Risk-Taking Behavior,"Journal of Anxiety Disorders

WHY IMPROV GAMES: A good game produces tension similar to what a great story does. When we are fully engaged in the act of playing – just as when we are fully engaged in the unfolding of a story – we are okay with the fact that we do not know how things are going to turn out. The willingness to be curious, explore both complex and simple ideas and things, and express intense interest in other people are central to the rules and principles of improvisation. When involved with this kind of activity, we are riding the same track that anxiety can take but aiming it in a new and different direction - knowing that we don't know and accepting this is an expansive state of mind. We are open to noticing more, taking in more and seeking to understand what is offered, the innate search for novelty and discovery engages the "reward" chemistry of the brain. The new neural patterns laid down by choosing the path of curiosity through improvisation trigger more of the brain chemistry of joy, so we can learn to tolerate the unfamiliar and having fun doing it. Beyond that, we are learning to move through discomfort for a higher purpose or long-term goal, which is key to sustainable change. 
In "Curiosity: The Killer Catalyst" journalist Tom Jacobs reports Kashdan's argument that "curiosity and anxiety work together — one propelling us to explore, the other putting on the brakes so that we don't take unwise risks. The problem, in his view, is that we have devalued curiosity, putting the bulk of our energy — as individuals, communities, nations — into anxiety avoidance. Rather than resist it, he argues, we should acknowledge its existence and turn up the volume on the other side of the equation: the impulse that pulls us toward challenge and exploration."

"Our curiosity and threat detection systems evolved together, and they function to ensure optimal decisions are made in an unpredictable, uncertain world," he writes in his book Curious? Discovering The Missing Ingredient To A Fulfilling Life. "We are all motivated by the pull toward safety and seek to avoid danger, but we also possess a fundamental motivation to expand and grow as human beings."

"As we have new experiences, new neuropathways are created. Connective tissue between neurons develops. Of course, as we get older, we’re going to see a natural cognitive decline, some degeneration in brain cells. And as we get older, we tend to cling even more to what we know. We create a very small but cohesive world for ourselves based on comfortable habits and routines... It’s easy to overlook that you’re also still growing, reading new books, forming new opinions, along with the people around you. This slight shift in thinking—toward seeking out what you don’t know, purposefully looking for novelty—will actually increase your neural connections and can reduce the speed of cognitive decline. Research is showing it’s vital to be exposed to novelty—it’s not enough just to be active and spend time with people; there has to be some element of newness and uncertainty." Todd Kashdan, Curious? Discover The Missing Ingredient To A Fulfilling Life

Below is an excerpt from the website
"Improvisation is an art form. It is a life-long journey of exploration and discovery. Although it is not something you ever master, its riches are constantly being unfolded as a reward for committing to and preserving with the art form. And most importantly, it is a fun way of traveling on the journey to self-actualization and feeling comfortable in one's own skin.
Why Improv? Improvisation sets up a safe and fun environment for a person to undergo experiential self-directed learning. This personal growth results in not only being a better improviser, but a person is able to transfer this learning to every area of their life, whether it's personal relationships, professional work or school.
Improvisation is the wonderful vehicle for leadership development, whether it's self-leadership or leadership of others, as it imparts crucial life skills that every person needs." 


Harvest and Share
Each player notices something about the person sitting to his/her right, makes an association to it and then shares both with the group, e.g. Player #1 notices a necklace worn by the person sitting to her right, - we'll call her "Jenny" - which is made of entwined circles, makes a mental association to it and then shares: I harvest Jenny's necklace with its design of linked circles and it reminds me of the Olympic rings, which are a symbol of people working together to achieve high goals." Each player makes a point of noticing, taking in or "harvesting" a detail about the person to the right, and making an association to it. 
  • Make visible and conscious the natural process of neuroperception, of "noticing" that human beings do with one another in social situations, which can lead to anxiety and subtle defensiveness when it is unconscious in situations of uncertainty or risk;
  • Practice the improvisation technique of receiving and using what others offer- the fundamental improv principle of "yes...and" - just by their presence and what is unique about them;
  • Connect the group to one another by sharing an association;
  • Connection the group to one another by supporting each person's harvesting and sharing.
Status Walk
The group is instructed to walk about the space in 3 different ways:
Walk as if you know what is happening and how to deal with it and you know that you know;
Walk as if you don't know what is happening nor how to deal with it, and you know that you don't know;
Walk as if you don't know what is happening nor how to deal with it, but you are intensely interested in figuring it all out;
  • Experience the physical and internal state associated with confidence and high-status navigation of a social situation;
  • Experience the physical and internal state associated with low confidence and low-status navigation of a social situation;
  • Experience the physical and internal state associated with curiosity about how to navigate a social situation;
The group identifies 3 iconic figures who inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. Madame Curie, Michelle Obama, Patti Smith. A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each one. In the style of "rock, paper, scissors" everyone counts out loud "1, 2, 3" and then on the 4th beat assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each icon represented at the same moment. The game repeats until the goal is achieved.

  • Get out of overthinking and jump into a physical experience that connects the players in a shared goal;
  • Experience the "high" of a "win" that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
  • Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
  • Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;these individuals.
Two players sit side by side as on a park bench. Player #1 recounts a personal experience of something they have done in their life that at one time they believed they could not do - a true narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They are instructed to tell the story one or two sentences at a time, in a bland, boring way. Player #2 repeats each sentence in a very emotional, animated way, amplifying the energy of the information. If it is a sad moment shared by Player #1, Player #2 amplifies the sadness (the "yes..) and then adds an "and" which is adding a layer of support, e.g.
Player #1: My daughter moved across the country and it broke my heart. I thought she wanted to get as far away from me as she could.
Player #2: Your daughter moved all the way across the country and you were just heart-broken. You thought meant she wanted to get away from you and it was just so painful.
Player #1: When she invited me to come out and stay with her for a week I thought I'd have to be on my best behavior. But I couldn't figure out what she liked and didn't like about me.
Player #2 : When she invited you to come out and stay with her you so wanted it to work out well, but you were really struggling. You wanted to get along with her so much, and you thought you had to figure out what she wants from you. It was so confusing!!
Player #1: I discovered that she viewed me as very independent. And she wanted to be very independent just like me. And she wanted me to see that she could do it.
Player #2: You had no idea that she was not trying to get away from you, she was trying to be more like you. And she wanted you to really be impressed that she could strike out on her own. 
The interaction continues until the story is complete. The idea is for Player #2 to support Player #1 by supplying energy and empathy, and Player #1 can use the energy, empathy and hearing the details being repeated to become very aware of the story's meaning and depth. The exercise can heighten the struggle and the strength the storyteller is sharing about and demonstrates a fundamental listening skill - really taking in what someone is communicating - the "yes" - and building on it in a way that enhances and expands on the emotional truth - the "and." 
  • Practice focused listening;
  • Practice the fundamental principle of successful human connection - the "yes..and" that makes improvisation possible;
  • Share stories on the theme of resilience;
  • Acknowledge the strengths that can arise from overcoming adversity:

Players are given a card on which a character's name is written and some brief guidelines for what this character is all about. The characters are the neuro-transmitters associated with the stress response:
Adrenaline - a highly-excitable, reactive person, cannot think things through;
Cortisol - a person of strength, who strengthens others and likes to take control;
Epinephrine - reacts strongly to Adrenaline and situations of excitement and unpredictability - can be triggered by novelty and surprise as much as by shock and distress;
Endorphin - a highly positive person, comes in strong in response to strong efforts and attempts to solve a problem;
Dopamine - feels positive and joyful, is also heightened by strong efforts and attempts to solve a problem;
Serotonin - relaxed, "chill" person, everything is okay. Not forceful, laid back and has trouble being heard when things get heated.

The group decides who they are together, where they are and what they are doing. They should be a group of people who know each other and have some kind of relationships with one another - a bridal party, an office staff, a sports team. One player volunteers to leave the room while the group establishes their dynamic, exploring their roles based on the description and finding how they react to one another based on the story that is being improvised. When ready, the player who left the room bursts in with a big announcement - a problem that will impact everyone in the room. The players must respond in character and play out a scene that leads to some kind of outcome. Side coaching by the facilitator may help the players find alliances among the other players and choose how the story will end. Does the story end with the stress response - Adrenaline, Cortisol and Epinephrine teaming up to do something radical and reactive - or with the curiosity/creative response, in which the group attempts to really solve the problem and heightens the contributions of Dopamine and trigger the help of Endorphin. Serotonin may try to mediate among the more high-reactive characters and if he/she teams up with Cortisol may succeed. 

  • Identify the brain chemistry associated with anxiety and stress through an experiential exercise;
  • Demonstrate the impact of different choices along the path of responsiveness to the unknown;
  • Have an experience of discovery and coping with the unknown in a safe, low-stakes situation;
  • Collaborate with a group in real-time, focusing on what the group can create and learn together;

Debrief: How do these chemicals interact in the brain/mind when we are faced with uncertainty?
How might these characters reflect human beings in different kinds of interactions, when faced with problems to solve?

If these games and exercises are effective, it is because they are fun. And fun can conquer - or at least redirect - fear. Here is a TEDx talk by improviser and teacher Greg Tavares of Theater 99 in Charlotte, SC. 

HISTORY OF IMPROVISATION AS A METHOD OF SKILL/SELF-DEVELOPMENT - "The games emerged out of necessity...When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game." "Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate" 
"In 1939, an actress and educator named Viola Spolin became a drama supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Recreational Project in Chicago—an effort made possible by the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt's groundbreaking response to the Great Depression. Spolin worked primarily with children and recent immigrants to the United States, most of whom knew very limited English. Luckily, Spolin had learned to teach from Neva Boyd, who taught that simple play could ingrain children with lessons in language, cooperation, socialization, and other important skills. Since lectures and other traditional teaching methods were useless with people who couldn't understand her, Viola Spolin turned her acting lessons into games. According to her website, Spolin once recalled, "The games emerged out of necessity...When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game." From these groups emerged the first improvisational theater performances, replete with scenes based on audience suggestions." "Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate"

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, which is an approved by NYS as a provider of continuing education for social workers, provider #0270, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed in New York and around the country.


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