Laughter is the Best Medicine

By: Nicole Laverty

So, you know that feeling you get, right before something big is about to happen? Maybe it’s the night before a big test, or an hour before you have to deliver a speech and all you can think is: Man I’m going to screw this up. I’m definitely going to fail and I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of all of those people. And the fear, and the worry and the panic all build.

Well that feeling is anxiety, and usually it’s an isolated incident. You worry about doing something, you do that something, and then when it’s over you go back to your day feeling better than ever. But for some people it’s not so simple.Imagine having that feeling just from doing everyday things - like talking to the lady at the cash register. Or getting on a crowded subway. This is what people with anxiety disorders suffer on a daily basis. And if you have social anxiety, you get that feeling every time you speak to another person. An intense, irrational fear of being criticized by them, or by receiving attention from them. Because attention means you could say the wrong thing. And according to a survey done by the Government of Canada, 11.6% of Canadians aged 18 years or older have this disorder. While that may not sound like a lot, that translates to well over 4 million people (Government of Canada, 2015).

Treatments for this disorder range from medication to therapy but the most interesting one - which also happens to be the strangest- was created by a man named Cameron Algie. His solution - for people who have a crippling fear of being judged - is to stand up on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers - and make them laugh.

[Passion Project Podcast Intro]

Cameron is an improviser for The Second City - a comedy club in downtown Toronto. He performs in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis - and yet when he first came to Second City, it was at the recommendation of his therapist, to help with his social anxiety.

“It would be like someone saying ‘oh I’m extremely anxious, I’m scared to leave the house, like even the idea makes my body throw up and stuff’ and if that person said ‘oh you should go on stage and make people laugh then you’d be like ‘well that’s…the worst advice I’ve ever heard”

But that’s what he did. In a last ditch effort Cameron went to that class, with family and friends by his side….and after a while he found that he actually enjoyed it. And so, as he grew as an improviser, he started a program at The Second City called “Improv for Anxiety”. The program works in collaboration with therapists across the city to help people manage their social phobias.

Now, according to the website, the classes are 3 hours long, and, I’m quoting here, they combine “ensemble-based improv with cognitive behavioral therapy to help teens overcome the fear and avoidance of social anxiety”. Basically the class goes through a series of fun group exercises that try to get them out of their shell, and then meet with a licensed therapist to go over strategies to help them in their everyday life. But according to Cameron, it’s more than that.

“In addition to that I would say, it gets you into your body, it connects you with others, it keeps you present and in the moment instead of lost in the thoughts in your head, you kind of have to pay attention to what others are doing” 

One of the biggest symptoms of social anxiety is that you have all these fears running through your mind, fears telling you that everyone around you is judging you, that something bad is about to happen, that people are going to see your anxiety. So you can imagine, with all these thoughts hitting you at once, it can be difficult to get out of your head.

But according to a study by Gordon Bermant, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, improv helps you do just that (2013). He says that improv increases a person’s “interpersonal attentiveness” - a fancy way of saying your ability to actually focus on others when you communicate with them. To explain this, Bermant uses the idea of a “safety net”. He says the scariest thing about improv for a person with anxiety is that because you create your material on the spot, you don’t have a “safety net” to fall back on. Which is exactly why improv works. He says that as you learn to read the people around you, you begin to trust them - and those people become your safety net.

And with that, the fear of failure loses its sting.

But my question is, where does that fear of failure come from?  Why is it that some people are crippled by a fear of judgment, and some have no fear at all? And to answer this question, I turned to science.

*DUN DUN DUN*

Specifically, I turned to Dr. Etkin and Dr. Wager, who conducted a study about the mental processes of people with anxiety (2007). What they did was they took a group of people with different types of anxiety disorders - PTSD, social anxiety, generalized anxiety and specific phobias- and performed an fMRI.

And what that means is they took pictures of the brains of these people while they were doing things that would trigger their anxiety.

They then took pictures of the brains of people with no mental illness, and compared them. And what they found was that people with these disorders have a “hyperactive amygdala”. In simple terms, that people with anxiety have more activity in the fear center of their brain than the average person. And it is so extreme that it is considered highly abnormal.

Which means, yes, to all you skeptics who don’t believe mental illness is a real disease, anxiety disorders exist in people because they are biologically different than a healthy human.

Because for people with this anxiety disorder, that fear of failure can be crippling, and not all of it is cognitive. There are lots physical symptoms as well - blushing whenever the person makes eye contact, or vomiting frequently. Or, worst of all, frequent panic attacks - an abrupt feeling of intense fear or discomfort, followed by shaking, sweating, pounding heart (Albuquerque & Deshaur, 2002). And most people who are plagued with this feel they need to hide it.

And so this brings me to my next question - if the effect of anxiety is more activity in the fear center of the brain, what effect does laughter have? Is there any scientific evidence that shows that these improv classes can act as treatment?

Well it turns out there is. And this one comes compliments of Aaron O’Banion and Justin Bashore, and their work with The Social Anxiety Institute. According to them, laughter releases these things called “beta-endorphins” in the brain. Endorphins are essentially chemicals that the brain releases to suppress pain and to create feelings of pleasure. And it turns out that these beta-endorphins actually counteract the adrenaline and cortisol that socially anxious people experience.

So what do all these complicated terms really mean? Well laughter treats anxiety the way Advil treats a headache - by releasing chemicals that counteract its symptoms.

Which means that laughter truly is the best medicine. And, to answer my question can these classes be used as treatment? Yes they can. By creating an environment that is centered around laughter.

So you may be wondering, what do you actually do in these classes? Well, according to Cameron, they’re all about play. To him, what’s most important is taking time out of your day to have fun, to take a break from the stress of your life and be a kid again. Which is why his classes consist of playing games like tag and duck duck goose. Or running around the room pretending to be a bird.

“I link myself with people who like do animal therapy or painting therapy or dance therapy. It’s just in my mind an alternative that is enjoyable. And the joy part of it, I feel, is the big difference” 

Who would have thought that therapy could include games where you go around the room telling stories one word at a time? Or that therapy could include games at all. Traditional therapy, where you speak about your problems with a licensed therapist, is often quite heavy. But it seems to me that these classes completely reinvent the term therapy - making light of your issues instead.

According to Cameron playing these games together connects you to the people around you - something that’s becoming increasingly uncommon now that everyone spends their days with their heads buried in their phones.

“Today people have very noisy minds, and I feel like that’s just going to lead to more anxiety and more detachment” 

Anxiety disorders have been talked about for years, but there seems to have been a growing trend over the last few decades. In fact, the proportion of 15/16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years (Nuffield Foundation, 2007). Is it really a coincidence that as we become a society that is so focused on technology, our fear of people has increased?

Now, this is just a theory. But what makes sense to me is that with most people spending their day distracted by technology, logically their social skills are going to suffer. But technology is just one part of it. Others, like Lucy Dwyer, a writer for The Atlantic, have said that the pressure from education is the main reason anxiety disorders are on the rise (2014). As students we invest thousands of dollars that we don’t have to follow a career path we aren’t even sure we’re going to like. So the pressure to choose a career - choose the right career has skyrocketed. Because your money - and all the money you’ll make in the future - depends on it. With the stakes so high is it any wonder anxiety disorders are becoming more and more common?

And it’s not just anxiety disorders that are becoming more common. The American College Health Association recently surveyed 43 000 post-secondary students in Canadian Universities to shed light on the extent of mental illness in those institutions (2016).

And the results were chilling.

They found that 90% of post-secondary students surveyed said that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year - and of that 90%, almost 70% said they felt overwhelming anxiety.

And what’s more, 13% of people surveyed said they had seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year. That’s 5,590 teens that were willing to sacrifice their own lives because of the level of stress that education, among other issues, has put on their mental health.

One of those other issues? Finances.

According to Aleksandra Sagan of The National Post, the average student debt in Canada is $25000 (2016). These students haven’t even really begun their life yet and they’re already plagued with thousands of dollars in debt. How can you afford a house, or a car for that matter when all of your money is being owed to student assistance programs?

In the article, Sagan references a women named Katrina M. Walsemann, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina. She states that students who took out more student loans were more likely to report poor mental health in early adulthood. And it all comes down to that one thing - the pressure that our society puts on students to be perfect. To get the perfect job, make the perfect salary, get the perfect GPA. To look right, to act right. And trying and failing to live up to such high standards is one of the biggest contributors to anxiety. Because it’s a disease that is literally rooted in the fear of judgments from others, and that’s exactly what our entire society is built around - the opinions of others.

The level of mental health disorders is increasing dramatically in teens, which is why innovative classes like Improv for Anxiety at Second City are so important. It is a fun and creative way to lessen the load these students carry on a daily basis. As Cameron says, conventional therapy is great to get things of your chest - but to actually enjoy going to it is a rarity. With improv, you have a sense of freedom, of letting yourself act in an environment where there are no judgments and no expectations.

“You come to an improv class, even if it’s just for those three hours, you get a 3 hour break from that constant drive to be perfect, the constant drive to achieve or do a good job or be right and be professional and not just be a silly stupid head and so those breaks of play are very beneficial”

It may not be conventional but it is fun. And that’s the most important part. Because if you’re having fun then that means it’s working. Cameron says he sees the results in his students when they perform - students he had to walk into class on the first day.

“I mean, some of them were scared to come into the class, and I’d have to go get them from the hall, and help them into the first class, and now here they are dancing and singing and making stuff up and making their friends and family and hundreds of people laugh on a stage at Second City… and it’s…it’s impressive.”

Cameron has created a passion project that truly has changed the face of mental health in our city, helping youth develop a sense of confidence not only in themselves, but in others as well. And it all comes from a sense of fun that he says is inherent in everybody. Everybody wants to take a break from life to play games and to pretend to be a kid again. And now that you know the “why?” try asking yourself “why not?”

 “Take two things you love, slam them together. That’s your new career. Life advice for everybody” 

And by combining his passion for improv with his love for self-help, Cameron has developed a program that helps people laugh in the face of fear.

 

Everyone may have felt social anxiety, but if it is reaching the point where it’s stopping you from living your life you may want to give these classes a try. Go alone, bring a friend, but give yourself a chance to take a break from those thoughts in your head that tell you the world is against you. You can register online on The Second City website, or call 416 340 7270 for more information. 

 

 

References

 

Albuquerque, J., & Deshaur, D. (2002, June). Social Anxiety Disorder: A Syndrome with Many Faces. The Canadian Journal of CME. Retrieved from the website: http://www.stacommunications.com/journals/cme/2002/06-june/anxietydiscorder.pdf

American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Data Report Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association. Retrieved from: http://www.cacuss.ca/_Library/Provincial_Reports/NCHA-II_SPRING_2016_CANADIAN_REFERENCE_GROUP_DATA_REPORT.pdf

Bermant, G. (2013). Working with(out) a net: Improvisational theater and enhanced well-being. Frontiers in Psychology Front. Pyschol., 4. Retrieved from the U.S. National Library of Medicine Website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857531/

Dwyer, L. (2014, October 3). When Anxiety Hits at School. Retrieved from the website: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/when-anxiety-hits-at-school/380622

Etikin, A., & Wager, T.D. (2007). Functional Neuroimaging of Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Emotional Processing in PTSD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobia. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164 (10). Retrieved from The American Journal of Psychiatry website: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07030504#

Government of Canada. (2015). Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Canada. Retrieved from the Government of Canada website: healthycanadians.gc.ca/publications/diseases-conditions-maladies-affections/mental-mood-anxiety-anxieux-humeur/index-eng.php#fn1-rf

Increased levels of anxiety and depression as teenage experience changes over time. (2012, March 14). Retrieved from the organization’s website: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/news/increased-levels-anxiety-and-depression-teenage-experience-changes-over-time

Improv Classes for Anxiety. (n.d.) Retrieved from the official Second City website: http://www.secondcity.com/improv-for-anxiety/

O’Banion, A., & Bashore, J. (n.d.) He Who Laughs Most is Most Likely to Last. Retrieved from the Social Anxiety Institute website: https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/he-who-laughs-most

Sagan, A. (2016, May 30). As student debt climbs to an average past $25K, schools invest in battling the mental-health issues it causes. Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/as-student-debt-climbs-to-an-average-past-25k-schools-invest-in-battling-the-mental-health-issues-it-causes

Recommended References

http://www.secondcity.com/improv-for-anxiety/

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Cameron Algie for the information he gave about Second City and his own personal struggles with anxiety.

Music from: bensound.com

Sound effects: freesound.com