The Second City Training Center. Photo by Kirsten Miccoli
Kat Bovbjerg recognized that she was suffering from social anxiety when she was a junior studying psychology at the University of Chicago. “My pulse would start racing; I’d get a little bit clammy; I’d get stuck inside my head and feel disconnected from everyone and from reality, like I was in a dream, and I’d feel really alone and overwhelmingly scared,” she recalls. “It happened when I had to talk to people one-on-one and had to share information about myself. I felt that I had a lot of trouble making friendships in college.”
Because Bovbjerg had acting experience, her therapist suggested she take an Improv for Anxiety class at The Second City Training Center. It turns out that comedy can be good therapy.
“We realized over the years that a lot of people with anxiety were coming to our improv classes as an alternative therapy to tackle and face their social anxieties. Unbeknownst to us, a lot of local therapists knew there would be some benefits for people with this disorder in our classes,” says Kerry Sheehan, president of The Second City Training Centers and Education Programs.
So when Mark Pfeffer, director of Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center (PARC), partnered with Sheehan to formalize an Improv for Anxiety class for people with mild to moderate social anxiety, complemented by support group sessions at PARC, it was a done deal. Pfeffer says, “I was frustrated as a therapist because I couldn’t get my clients to do the work needed to face their fears so they could get over them. I thought improv would be a shortcut to build their confidence.”
About 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and more than 35 percent of them say they had symptoms for 10 years or more before looking for help. “Social anxiety is the exquisite sensitivity to scrutiny from others,” Pfeffer says. “People with social anxiety fear being judged socially as not good enough or not smart enough.” The disorder may affect their social life, their relationships and the everyday routines of school and work.
The Improv for Anxiety classes are only slightly different from Second City’s regular improvisation classes. “We pick teachers who are interested in working with people with social anxiety and are trained to be sensitive to their needs,” Sheehan says. “They have the ability to make everyone feel welcome, comfortable, safe and free from judgment and just have fun.” She adds, “One of the small adjustments we’ve made is making sure in the first classes that we don’t introduce exercises that put any one individual on the spot. We try to keep it group focused until the whole group is comfortable before we gradually move along to scene work with one or two classmates.”
Bovbjerg, who now works as a research technician in Northwestern University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, says that in spite of her acting experience, she still felt anxious when she attended the first Improv for Anxiety class.
“I didn’t get nervous when I was acting because I had an entire world of words, a script and a set to hide behind, but I was nervous about improv because you have to make up the words and make choices that you come up with all on your own,” she says. “I remember beating myself up after making a choice and thinking that I could have said something better or funnier. But the class really helped me to let go of my judgmental self. Over time, it started to get easier because the environment was very supportive, and people in the class knew what you were going through. As I heard other people’s experiences, I knew that I was not alone.”
Improvisation is also a part of the support group sessions, which have themes that reflect real-life situations—such as making small talk, public speaking or going to a job interview—that people with social anxiety fear and try to avoid. “We make our clients feel uncomfortable, but when they face their fears in a safe environment, the exposure reduces the anxiety. It’s hard to be terrified when you’re laughing,” Pfeffer says. “Once they feel they are not alone, they feel the power of the ensemble—the power of being with people who have the same issues and have each other’s backs.”
The people in the group sessions also learn techniques to manage their negative thoughts and their physical symptoms. “The most important part is to get people to embrace uncertainty because the only thing in life that is certain is death,” Pfeffer says. “We have to embrace uncertainty and live our lives with that attitude.”
Improv for Anxiety Level A improv class, Feb. 28–April 17, at Second City Training Center, 1608 N. Wells St., and support group, March 2–April 20, at PARC offices, 680 N. Lake Shore Dr., Suite 818; 312- 642-7952, beyondanxiety.com/improv. $750 includes weekly improv session plus weekly group therapy session. Improv for Anxiety classes for ages 12–14 and 15–18 are also offered.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.