Improv Keeps You Afloat When Anxiety Drags You Down

We are thrilled that one of our most experienced improv instructors, Jim Robinson, will be teaching our new class, “Managing Anxiety with Improv Skills” beginning next week, April 24. BNW Student Union co-founder and president, Jenni Lilledahl, sat down with Jim to talk about what students can expect from this fun and transformative four-week experience.

JENNI: Jim, you have a PhD in psychology, you’ve been teaching improvisation for 20 years, and teaching (English and psychology) for more than 30 years. Tell me more about this intersection between anxiety and improvisation.

JIM: When I started practicing improv more than 20 years ago, I learned that the core of improvisation is about staying in the moment. Staying in the moment keeps you present and connected to right now. Anxiety is about dread and future thinking. What we know is that if you are in the moment it is very difficult to be anxious. Like many people, I can be fairly anxious at times. Improv has helped me practice staying in the moment and ultimately given me tools to manage life’s anxious moments.

JENNI: I’ve had a similar experience. So much of my anxiety is centered around habitual thought patterns, either worrying about the future, or ruminating on the past. When I am improvising I’m completely here, right now. It feels completely different. For the students taking this four-week class, how will they benefit?

JIM: My hope is that every student will gain at least two take-a-ways: One, they are going to be able to actually do something that is often anxiety provoking (i.e. ‘improvisation’) and not only live through it but flourish – so a sense of confidence and accomplishment for jumping in and facing something we all struggle with at times; and two, improv is about developing a specific way of thinking. In this class we’ll be talking about and experiencing the improv mindset and how it applies to situations in our daily lives outside the classroom. We’ll be able to take this powerful new way of thinking and use it to deal with anxiety.

JENNI: In my 25 years teaching improvisation, the most common thing I hear from people when I talk about my work is, “Oh, improvisation. I could never do that. That scares me.” What can you say to someone who is intrigued by this class, but feeling pretty scared to jump in?

JIM: First know that it’s completely normal to be afraid. There is nothing wrong with that. A lot of people in the class will be anxious. In fact almost every student who steps foot in an improvisation class is nervous at first. One of the goals and primary foundations of what we do in improvisation is to practice radical non-judgment. It is my job as the instructor to foster that safe, non-judgmental space. And when the students buy in as well, everyone is able to take that chance and learn and stretch. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in that space – it’s like a warm bath.

JENNI: I love warm baths. Cold ones, not so much. But warm ones . . . “yes and”! So can anyone take this class? Do you have to have a certain level of anxiety to benefit?

JIM:   We all have some anxiety in our lives, so this class really is for anyone who wants to try a fun and powerful way to relieve worry. As adults, even mentally healthy adults, we get stuck in thought patterns that cause us to worry needlessly. In improv we say let go of your ideas, let go of your stories. It’s very liberating. Even if you are not overly anxious, it can be very inspiring to see yourself and your classmates in a new light. In every class I have ever taught, relationships go beyond the classroom. We form bonds with our classmates in a new way because we have this shared, creative, supportive experience together. Also it’s good to remember that this class is not therapy – it’s improv and improv is fun.

JENNI: Is an improv class something you might do with a friend?

JIM: Yes, absolutely. That’s a great adaptive strategy for someone trying to manage anxiety – if that makes you feel less anxious, bring a friend. And for others, they may feel more anxious with people they know, so taking the class alone might work as well. You know yourself so trust yourself and do what you need to do in order to feel good about what you are doing. This is something we also practice in improvisation: learning to trust our own instincts.

JENNI: I know some people hear ‘improv’ and they think they will be asked to perform in front of others or be funny on the spot. Talk more about how the class works.

JIM:   This is not a performance class. We call it an interactive experience. One of the things I really love about improvisation is that it’s a group effort. You will be working with the group and in front of the group at times, but it really is a collaboration with the people in your class. There is no performance and all of the exercises are geared for fun and success and personal growth. And we do everything within that safety net of ‘non-judgment.’

JENNI: I always tell people that I’ve never had a student fail at improvisation. If you show up and jump in, you will learn and grow and find some piece of magic in the class.

JIM: Agreed. I look forward to jumping in with everyone next week! People completely new to improv, or anyone who has done some improv and wants to do some deeper personal work, are welcome. Give it a try. Improvisation works!

“Managing Anxiety with Improv Skills,” meets four consecutive Mondays, 7 – 9pm, at the BNW Student Union in downtown Minneapolis, beginning next Monday, April 24. You can register HERE!

JIM ROBINSON has over 30 years of experience as an English and psychology professor and nearly 25 years of experience as a professional improviser, writer, producer, and sketch comedian. He has performed with the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis; with the Disney Cruise Line onboard the Disney Magic; and in over 30 productions in the Twin Cities. As an instructor he has taught at St. Catherine University: St. Thomas University; the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis; and as an English/Improv instructor in Myanmar, India, and Nepal. He is currently combining his dual career with a course called Improvisation and Mental Health and an original musical (with Dennis Curley) called Psych 101. Jim has been an improvisation instructor at the BNW Student Union since 1997 and hails from Riverside, California.