A solution for when stress and anxiety levels are high — and my social skills are embarrassingly deficient.
The year was 2012. I had recently published my doctoral research about how improv comedy affects the mind. That’s the good news. The bad news was that my dad died, and my boyfriend of six years broke up with me — while I was in grad school. I moved from suburban domesticity back to the starving-artist life in New York City. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing well… you know, mentally and socially.
Let me give you an example. I once got stuck behind two tourists. I did everything I could to try to weave around them but to no avail. Exasperated, I shouted, “Are you walking or shitting your pants?!”
I had written the first academic book connecting improv and cognitive science — my research showed that when people shifted their focus and tapped into a childlike sense of curiosity, their anxiety decreased and their creativity increased. Yet here I was, so in my head and up my ass, that I was shouting obscenities at a couple of nice ladies from Ohio.
I felt like a hypocrite because I knew that improv thinking was optimal thinking.
Dr. Charles Limb began doing fMRI brain scan studies on different types of improvisers — the first of which came out in 2008 — and set out to see how jazz musicians’ brains looked while they were improvising.
The results of that first study showed that there were, in fact, significant differences in the improvisers’ brains when they were improvising. The part of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreased in activity, and the medial prefrontal cortex increased in activity.
Let’s break that down. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like your inner critic. It’s that voice in your head that says, “Don’t say that” or “Stop talking before you say something dumb.” Think of it as your inner judge and jury.
The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with language and creativity. So there’s something about the act of improvising that allows our inner critic to take a vacation, which allows creativity to flourish.
Limb then did more improv studies, with freestyle rappers and then improv comics, and found similar results.
Another way to think about improv’s impact is Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow. Flow is when time seems to fly by because you’re so immersed in whatever it is you’re doing. It’s an optimal psychological state that occurs when your skill level matches the task at hand.
Let’s connect flow back to Dr. Limb’s findings. Improvisers experience a kind of flow state — where they are so immersed in improvising that their inner critics can go offline and their creativity can soar.
But why? What is it about improv that leads to flow states and changes brain activity?
There are a couple of reasons why improv is so great at helping people feel more in the moment, less critical, and more creative. The secret sauce is the fact that improv isn’t just lawlessly making stuff up. There are some guiding principles or rules that improvisers follow to help them build trust and keep scenes moving forward.
The most famous improv principle is “Yes, And” — also known as the rule of agreement. The idea is that you need to agree with whatever reality your scene partner is trying to create and then add new details to that same reality.
My favorite way to demonstrate the importance of “Yes, And” is an exercise called “Yes And, Yes But, No.” For the first round of the exercise, I have people try to plan an office party together by saying no to each other’s ideas.
If someone says there should be streamers, someone else says, “No.” If someone says they’ll bring cake, their partner says, “No.”
It quickly becomes apparent that saying no does no favors for an improvised scene.
In the second round, players have to say “yes, but” to each other’s ideas and then continue with some sort of caveat.
If someone says there should be streamers, someone else might say, “Yes, but there should only be streamers in this corner.”
If someone says they’re going to bring cake, their partner might hedge by reminding them to make sure it’s an ice cream cake.
In the final round, players have to “yes, and” each other’s ideas.
If someone says there should be streamers, someone else could say, “Yes, and there should be balloons, too.”
If someone says they’re bringing cake, their partner could say, “Yes, and I’ll bring pie.”
By trying out all three (“Yes And, Yes But, No”), everyone gets to see firsthand how many more details “Yes, And” brings to a scene.
This “Yes, And” idea leads to a sense of trust. If I don’t have to worry about the merits of my idea, I can just be creative. My inner critic can finally take five.
So I had spent two years researching and writing about improv thinking, but my inner critic had not gotten the message. I was in my head: anxious, and not at all in the moment. And I wasn’t okay with that.
I decided to take everything I knew about improv — and its effects on the brain — and apply it to my everyday life. I knew that if I could translate improv lessons and exercises for daily use, I could help myself feel more mindful, less stressed, and less anxious around other people.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I created what I call Play Your Way Sane. It’s twelve improv-inspired lessons and 120 improv-inspired exercises (ten in each lesson). The key is that you don’t need anyone else to play these exercises. You can shift your focus and change your perspective with quick, accessible games that you can squeeze into your normal routine.
Lesson 1: Mindfulness
Improv rehearsals usually start with everyone walking around the rehearsal space pointing to things and yelling out what they are. “Window! Wall! Stereo! Mirror!”
You might be asking yourself why grown humans would pay money to do such a thing.
I’ll tell you.
Your conscious brain can only hold a tiny bit of information at a time. When you’re obsessing about your to-do list, it’s hard to also focus on the beautiful trees in your yard. Luckily, the reverse is also true.
Pointing at things and calling them what they are helps you shift your focus from internal (overthinking, worrying, anxious or obsessive thoughts) to what’s actually going on around you. And as luck would have it, that’s part of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. So by pointing at things and naming them, you’re actually practicing mindfulness and forcing your brain to think about the here and now — instead of whatever compulsive thoughts have been haunting you.
There are loads more improv games and exercises that help you shift your focus from internal to external, and the bonus is that you can play around with this focus-shifting throughout the day. I can practice mindfulness as I walk into Target or while I walk the dog.
This way I’m not just relying on five minutes of meditation here and an hour of yoga there. I get to sprinkle mindfulness throughout the day, which helps me retrain my brain to be less distracted and more in the moment.
So you better believe I am walking around and pointing and naming things. It’s the improv-inspired exercise I come back to the most — because it forces me to get out of my head and see what’s really going on all around me.
Lesson 2: Calming Down
Improvisers may not seem super calm when they take the stage. They’re usually hopping around and pacing all over the place. But they actually spend time centering and de-stressing beforehand, so they can be more in the moment and attentive during the show.
Stress can also be our worst enemy in our everyday lives. When I’m stressed out, I’m in fight or flight mode. I get defensive or storm off at the slightest provocation. I’m certainly not connecting with people and living my best life when my stress levels take over.
But improv can offer us another way. We can make de-stressing and relaxing a priority, the same way we would if we were about to take the stage.
I like to do fun breathing exercises to calm myself down when I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. I call my favorite one Birthday Cake Hands. I hold up my hand with fingers outstretched. Then I pretend my fingers are birthday candles. I breathe in deeply and then blow one finger-candle out at a time. Making a wish each time helps me relax even faster.
This is a fun way to force myself to slow down and breathe deeply. I used to get stuck in that stress cycle, where something would overwhelm me, and then being stressed out would lead me to become increasingly more overwhelmed.
Breathing and visualization exercises can help you break the cycle. Instead of letting yourself ramp up, you can stop yourself in your tracks, breathe deeply, and blow out those proverbial candles.
Lesson 3: Find the Game
There’s an improv concept called “finding the game.” What it means is that improvisers pay special attention to fun patterns as they pop up, so they can keep them going.
Let’s say an improviser says they’re from Ohio. Maybe their teammate says that they’re from Iowa. This could be the start of a fun pattern. They could try to out-Midwestern each other or only reference places with four-letter names.
“Finding the game” gives improvisers something fun to focus on. Instead of quaking in their boots being nervous about not knowing what comes next, improvisers can get out of their heads by focusing on details in the scene that they want to play around with and have fun with.
Imagine if we walked around our humdrum days trying to find the game.
As I’ve made perfectly clear by now, I used to really struggle in crowds and on the streets of New York. Put me in a crowd on the streets of New York, and you were asking for trouble. So I came up with Alien Game.
Instead of overthinking and getting anxious, I pretend that I’m an alien from another planet, and my goal is to not get caught. I have to pay attention to what all the earthlings are doing and just do what they do. If I’m going to blend in, I can’t draw attention to myself.
Inevitably, this helps me find patterns in what others are doing. It helps me shift my focus externally, instead of thinking about how I can’t wait to get home.
Another key to finding the game is that it helps you prime yourself for fun. When I’m pretending to be an alien, I tap into a childlike side of myself that doesn’t take life so seriously and is seriously looking for ways to have more fun, and that’s a way better way to operate in the world — with a genuine sense of curiosity and joy.
Lesson 4: Being More Positive
Improvisers are generally pretty positive people, at least when they’re on stage. It’s important to be positive because they’re looking for what’s working in the scene, so they can do more of that. If they focused on their mistakes and what was derailing the scene, well… things would just get worse and worse.
Now, I’m definitely not talking about toxic positivity — when people look on the bright side no matter how awful things get. Some things are bad. Dying? Cancer? Divorce? Global pandemic? All bad. We have to start by accepting the reality of the situation. Once we do that, then we can play around with trying to see the opportunity or positive aspects of the situation.
When I catch myself being unnecessarily negative, I play the improv-inspired game I call On the Other Hand. Let’s say I talk about how awful the weather is and how I hate that it’s so snowy. If I’m playing On the Other Hand, I have to catch myself and stop my negativity by saying, “On the other hand.” Then I have to try to add something redeeming about whatever it is I’m talking about.
I could say, “On the other hand, it’s been so fun playing with my daughter in all this snow.” This is a great way to notice how often you slip into negativity and try something else.
The thing to know about negativity is that it’s contagious. If one improviser starts being a Debbie Downer, it tends to spread. Suddenly, the entire scene is some kind of depressing Nihilistic joy-suck.
The same is true in real life. Negativity begets negativity. So, start noticing when you’re the Debbie Downer, and do what you can to break the habit.
Lesson 5: Stop Being Judgmental
If I’m thinking about how lame my scene partner is, I’m definitely not thinking about how to propel the scene forward. And that’s a recipe for disaster. Another improv principle is to not be judgmental of your fellow players.
This goes back to the idea that our conscious brains simply can’t hold that much information at one time. If you fill up your brain space with judgmental thoughts, you won’t have room for noticing all the amazing things that are happening in the scene, amazing things that you can point out and add onto to create a hilarious and compelling improvised performance.
Tamping down on our judgment is equally great in real life. My favorite improv-inspired exercise for this is called Curious Detective. Detectives are nothing if not open. As they follow the trail of clues, they shouldn’t be making assumptions and jumping to conclusions.
So when I want to be less judgmental (and I often do), I pretend I’m a detective. My goal is to find out what makes someone else tick. Who are they and what do they value? I want to learn everything I can about them, and I have to stick to the evidence instead of jumping to conclusions.
When I play Curious Detective, I shift the focus of conversations to the person I’m talking to. I find it much easier to think of interesting questions to ask when I’m trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that is this person’s life.
And when the people around me notice how genuinely interested in them I am, trust grows. They tend to open up and share more. Trust doesn’t just happen randomly. It’s earned. We have to show people that we’re paying attention, that we truly hear what they’re saying, and that we want to know more.
Lesson 6: Treating Others Like Geniuses
Improv pioneer Del Close famously said that when we treat our fellow improvisers like geniuses, poets, and artists, they’re more likely to become that on stage. Not surprisingly, the same can be said in real life.
I noticed this phenomenon most when I was teaching. When teachers started categorizing students as problem-children or bad apples, that’s what I noticed they’d see more of. I made it a point to try not to do this. I wrote students letters each year describing what I admired about them. I held one-on-one conferences with students each week to remind them of their potential. I focused on the positive and ended up seeing a lot more of that in my classroom.
One game I play to practice seeing the best in people is called Superhero. I try to figure out what someone’s superhero identity is. My husband is Super Helpful Man, and my daughter is Super Curious Girl. By reframing in this way, I’m priming myself to notice more and more good things about them. When my husband gives me a harsh critique, I can more easily reframe it as his way of being helpful. When my daughter asks “Why?” for the millionth time, I revel in the fact that she’s curious and interested in figuring out how the world works.
Focusing on people’s potential and their attributes has helped me connect better with others and strengthen relationships. It’s also helped me find ways that I can help people reach their potential, which is a far cry from writing people off and dismissing them.
Lesson 7: You Aren’t Special
An extension of treating people like geniuses is to stop thinking like your wants and needs are any more or less important than anyone else’s. Improv is the ultimate team effort. There isn’t room for divas and stars. Scenes unfold spontaneously when everyone takes turns and helps each other along. This can’t happen if someone’s hogging the spotlight.
So take a step back — and stop thinking that you matter more than other people. Stuck behind two tourists from Ohio? You aren’t more important than them. Calm down. Catch yourself saying, “How could this happen to me?” Reframe and think, “Why shouldn’t this happen to me?”
The improv-inspired exercise that helps me stop being a diva — and start thinking of myself as just one of many — is called Machine. It’s based on the acting exercise with the same name.
All you have to do is pretend that people’s sounds and movements are parts of a machine. Instead of going rogue, close your eyes and become attuned to what others are doing and saying. Try to find a way to move your body that compliments what’s already going on.
This game is great when you’re sitting in a waiting room or standing in line. It helps me to stop thinking about how annoyed I am or how unfair it is that I have to wait — and helps me start thinking about how we’re all in this together. No one is any more or less special than anyone else.
Lesson 8: Listen
Lots of people assume they’re good listeners. Unfortunately, lots of people are wrong. In improv, listening is essential. If my partner says that my name is Karen, I better pay attention. If I’m not actively, carefully listening, I’m going to miss vital details about the scene as it unfolds.
One of the keys to better listening is to stop talking so much. One of my listening exercises is called Pause and Reflect. Instead of interrupting and assuming, try pausing for three counts when someone talks. It’s easy to get in the bad habit of cutting people off and dominating conversations. That’s why you should take another lesson from improv by sharing the air and giving some space for people to get their whole idea out.
I still catch myself bulldozing my way through discussions, but now I have tools to catch myself and try another approach, which has helped my relationships. I mean, who wants to be friends with someone who always talks and never listens, right?
Lessons 9 and 10: Yes, And
I’ve already described improv’s Yes, And rule, but it doesn’t hurt to remind you that it’s a fast way to break out of negativity and conflict.
Yes, And isn’t always appropriate in real life. Sometimes you need to say no to maintain boundaries and protect yourself. But there are many times throughout the day where you’re probably shooting down people’s ideas for no good reason. This lesson is about becoming more mindful of when you say no — and when it might make more sense to say yes.
Let’s say my husband tells me he’s upset because I’ve been spending too much time on my phone. Instead of getting defensive (which is my go-to reaction), I can try to hear him out by using Yes, And. “You’re right. I have been on my phone more than usual.”
The next part of Yes, And is to continue the line of thought, to keep the scene going. Instead of running to my room in shame, I can continue to explore the conversation at hand. “What’s upsetting you about me being on my phone more?” It might be hard to hear, but it can be a relationship game-changer to hear people out.
After all, don’t you also like when people let you say what’s on your mind?
This doesn’t mean you have to agree. It’s more about going along with their reality. Yes, my husband thinks I’m on my phone too much, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree. However, we can and should absolutely talk about his concerns.
Yes, And is a shortcut to helping people communicate and collaborate together. It’s a relationship and trust booster and has absolutely fortified my relationships with my husband and daughter. It’s made me realize that I don’t always have to be right and that sometimes, more than one person’s realities can be correct at the same time.
Lesson 11: Embrace Mistakes
Improvisers don’t let mistakes derail scenes. Instead, they have to do what’s called justifying mistakes. Justifying means they have to make them make sense. Like Tim Gunn says, “They have to make them work.”
For example, if someone calls me Bob in a scene after I’ve already introduced myself as Reggie, I might justify this mistake by saying that my full name is Bob Reginald Anthony. A good justification can make an improvised scene better with the mistake than without it.
I’m not arguing that we should justify all our mistakes in real life, but I do think it’s important to not let our mistakes stop us. Just like in an improvised scene, the show must go on. That’s why it’s important to accept your mistakes, acknowledge them, learn from them, and keep it moving.
I have an exercise called Fess Up where I have to admit (or fess up) to a mistake from my past that fills me with shame or embarrassment. Now, this might not seem like a very fun game to you, but I promise you that acknowledging mistakes can have a powerful effect on normalizing them. And mistakes should be normalized because we definitely all make them.
Fessing up and embracing mistakes has helped me feel less stuck and ashamed. A side effect is that it’s helped me connect with others. It’s made me more vulnerable and relatable, which has helped me build new relationships.
Lesson 12: Make Big Choices
Finally, improv rewards those who go big or go home. If my scene partner just stands there waiting around, my job becomes a lot harder. If they storm on and flail their arms and yell, at least I have something to work with.
Real life is no different. If I wait around on the sidelines, I’m not going to get to play. If I don’t write that manuscript, my book will never be published. If I don’t take a chance, I have no chance of winning big.
But big choices don’t always work out. Sometimes they end up being mistakes, but as I’ve just pointed out, mistakes don’t have to stop us. Mistakes give us something to work from, a jumping-off point.
One game that helps people make choices is called Do the Damn Thing. You just make a list of all the things you’d love to do. For example: write a book, run a marathon, learn German, and record your first TikTok video. Then you have to do one of those things! That’s it. That’s the whole exercise. Cross something off your bucket list and see how it makes you feel.
I mean, you don’t want to be standing on the sidelines watching life unfold. Jump on stage and see what happens.
Writing Play Your Way Sane has been a real-life example of me doing the damn thing. There have been times when I felt insecure or unsure about how it would turn out or how people would receive it, but I wrote it anyway. And that might be the most important improv lesson. It doesn’t have to be good. Don’t think about what people will say. Just get it done.
There’s plenty of time to go back over your work later and revise and polish, but it’s so important that we don’t let that inner critic stop us from creating.
I’ve felt so lucky during the pandemic to have these improv-inspired exercises to fall back on when I’m feeling stressed or anxious. They’ve helped me to shift my focus and keep things in perspective. And it feels like perfect timing to have these exercises released into the world. We’re stressed out, anxious, and disconnected. So what better time to bone up on our social and emotional skills than right now, before that 3000-person networking event or conference or party?
Use this time to shift your focus and change your perspective. In the short-term, it will help you be less anxious and stressed out. Down the road, it will help you connect better with others when we’re all finally face-to-face again.
Excerpted from Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty, by Clay Drinko Ph.D. with permission of Tiller Press; Copyright © Clay Drinko Ph.D., 2021.