IMPROV IMPROVES ANXIETY
SECOND CITY HELPS PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS Laughter is the best medicine—at least that’s the case for some anxiety sufferers trying improvisation training at the Second City. • The Panic/Anxiety/Recovery Center in Chicago is partnering with the Second City to use improv to help people overcome their fears. “It’s just a space where nothing you could say was wrong, so you didn’t even have to worry about making a fool of yourself or saying the wrong thing,” something that is a major relief for people with social anxiety, says Chicago college student Danny Chacon. He suffered from social anxiety for years before he found the program.
o far, some thirtysix people have used improv to pave the way beyond their panic, says Mark Pfeffer, a licensed Illinois psychotherapist and director of the Panic/Anxiety/Recovery Center. He kicked off this collaboration with the Second City in 2010 when he met the president of the Second City Training Centers and Educational Programs on the set of a phobia documentary. “We’ve partnered up with the Second City here in Chicago to develop more of a unique approach to helping people face their fear,” Pfeffer says. Pfeffer uses improv as an option of cognitive
behavioral therapy to enable patients to deal with their anxiety. “Cognitive behavioral therapy really just means that we deal more in the here and now and focus more on thinking and behavior,” Pfeffer says. “We put people in the feared situation, we evoke a response, a fear response, and try to get the person not to do the very thing that they would typically do in the situation.” But before diving into the theatrics of improv, participants of this program first receive some one-onone counseling with Pfeffer. They then join a group of others with anxiety disorders, where they learn the art of improv from a Second City coach. This unique social setting is one of the things about this collaboration that makes it an effective form of treatment. This kind of exposure therapy is very effective, especially since the group setting of the improv classes addresses many of the core fears that cause distress for those with social anxiety, says Evelyn Behar, assistant professor of psychology at University of
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The Second City improv coaches who instruct aspiring comedians work with a group of people with social anxiety who turn to improv for treatment.
Illinois at Chicago. With cognitive behavioral therapy, “a person really learns to tolerate their anxiety well,” Behar says. “They learn to not be overwhelmed by anxiety . . . and experience anxiety like the average person.” This kind of therapy isn’t for everyone, though. While approximately thirty-six people have found relief through the improv sessions, Pfeffer says about twelve participants dropped out. “The problem is that many people with severe social anxiety won’t even make the phone call” to start the program, Pfeffer says. But the long-term benefits pay off for those who do follow through, he said. As compared to taking antianxiety medication, which patients may need to take continuously to treat their anxiety, effective cognitive behavioral therapy changes a person’s mentality toward anxiety. “With meds, if people come off of them, there tends to be high relapse rates,” says Rick Zinbarg, professor and director of clinical training of the psychology department at Northwestern University. “Whereas gains in cognitive behavioral therapy tend to be maintained after the termination of therapy.” Chacon says he can attest to that. Despite being on anti-anxiety medications, his social anxiety still persisted, he says. Now, Chacon relies on the techniques he learned in his improv classes. “If I’m ever out, I’m able to rely on those experiences as a bank of successes I’ve made,” Chacon says. “I can think back and say, ‘You know, I was pretty good on my feet that one time in class, so I’m confident that I can do the same now.’” —Lacy Schley, Medill News Service
july/august 2012 | GET HEALTHY | 17