Members of the Montreal Improvisation League performing on stage. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Members of the Montreal Improvisation League performing on stage. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Improvisational theater courses in schools can help reduce social anxiety among teens who struggle connecting with other people, a new study suggests. The findings suggest that improv classes can be an effective, low-cost alternative to traditional therapies for social anxiety.

Unlike conventional theater, improv does not involve a script or any preparation beforehand. Everything happens then and there, which might at first glance sounds like it would cause even more anxiety. However, improv classes foster the idea that there is no such thing as a mistake and that any deviation from an improvised plot can ultimately be justified. Another basic tenant of improv is that everything your partner throws at you is true, no matter how absurd that idea may be. This forces you to always move things forward in the interaction.

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In other words, improv fosters a low-pressure environment where participants don’t feel censored and are free to express themselves.

For the new study, a team of psychologists at the University of Michigan led by Peter Felsman followed the progress of 268 high school and middle school students from Detroit before and after taking a 10-week school improvisational theater program. The researchers asked each participant to complete questionnaires designed to gauge their level of social phobias and anxiety before and after the program. For instance, the teens had to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “I am comfortable performing for others” and “I am willing to make mistakes.”

The results published in The Arts in Psychotherapy journal suggest that this brief program reduced symptoms of social anxiety among participants who screened positive for social phobia at the beginning of the class. The psychologists say that “this change predicts increases in social skills, hope, creative self-efficacy, comfort performing for others, and willingness to make mistakes, along with marginal decreases in symptoms of depression.”

“In addition, the mutual support that improvisation rewards builds trust, helping group members feel safer taking risks and more willing to make mistakes,” Felsman said in a statement.

The program focused on teens from poorer backgrounds and lower-performing schools who face barriers accessing standard treatments for social anxiety. That being said, teens from wealthier households and higher-performing schools may or may not experience similar benefits — that’s something future research might elucidate.

“Given that no prior study has examined school-based improvisational theater training and its relationship to social anxiety, this work offers an important early contribution to the empirical literature on improvisation and mental health. School-based improvisational theater training offers an accessible, non-clinical alternative for addressing social anxiety problems among adolescents,” the authors of the study conclued.