Wellbeing: Laughter really can be the best medicine
Over the past few years, it has become apparent that treating mental health problems such as social anxiety with pharmaceutical drugs is often unsatisfactory. Experts have been exploring effective non-drug therapies such as mindfulness, exercise, art and music therapy. My colleague Luisa Metcalfe told me about the benefit that improvisational theatre has brought friends of hers. Here’s her report.
Improvised comedy (‘improv’) – in which performers act without scripts, prompts or planning – has experienced a recent surge of popularity with shows such as the hilarious Austentatious (improv in the style of Jane Austen) and toe-tapping Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which won an Olivier award.
The shows demand a lot of the performers but the benefits are significant: thinking on your feet, working collaboratively, listening closely and building self-confidence. Now mental health specialists are taking note. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have linked doing improv with ‘enhanced wellbeing’ and, in 2016, the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health posited that group therapy based on improv concepts could help treat social anxiety.
The Free Association comedy school and theatre in North London, which is open to anyone, aims to ‘unlock a sense of joy in improv’. According to co-director and teacher Mike Orton-Toliver, ‘Most of the students battle with shyness and introversion, but improv sets up a series of principles to reassure them that whatever they come up with will be embraced by the people listening to and working with them.’
The central tenet is the ‘yes, and…’ rule: a performer comes up with an opening line, and their partner agrees with it and adds an idea of their own. Crucially, there is no such thing as a wrong answer or a bad idea. Strategy consultant Maxine Rosenthal, 39, found that taking improv classes after a painful break-up gave her a more relaxed outlook. ‘Saying “yes” means being open to possibilities and surprises. It gave me the confidence to realise you might not get the response you wanted, but that’s OK.’
Others compare improv to mindfulness. Becci Ride, 33, a production manager who studied improv to tackle low self-esteem, says: ‘In a scene, you are purely in the moment, unable to fixate on the future or past.’ Health researcher Muireann Kelly, 29, adds: ‘The supportive atmosphere in class fosters confidence – you realise it’s fine to be yourself. You’re encouraged to make bolder choices and that has translated into me being less scared to take risks in real life too. It’s one of the best things I’ve done for myself.’
For information on tickets and courses at The Free Association, visit
HOW IMPROV RULES CAN HELP YOU
• Dare to say yes
When you agree, you make the other person feel safe and that can open up the conversation.
• Don’t shut anyone down
To avoid this, don’t interrupt, don’t put them down and don’t cross your arms.
• Make eye contact
It’s much easier for a person to share honestly if you look into their eyes as you listen to them.
• Listen empathically
Be more interested in the other person’s ideas than your own. It helps you to learn and be more creative.
• Allow yourself to fail
‘It’s all right to look stupid,’ says Nat Tsolak, founder of the School of Laughter in London. 'We forget that other people are actually very forgiving.’
Is there anything natural to help a colicky crying baby, a reader asks? Some evidence points to targeted probiotics being helpful in this common condition. A recent article in The Journal of Pediatrics says ‘a sudden explosion of studies’ indicate that an imbalance of bacteria in the infant’s gut may lead to inflammation, causing colic and crying. A small trial showed Bio-Kult Infantis (£11.95 for 16 sachets, victoriahealth.com) significantly reduced symptoms and daily crying time, compared to a placebo. The product may also help infants and children with other tummy troubles, as well as those suffering from eczema.
If you have asthma, breathing in cold air can trigger an attack. The solution is simple, says Asthma UK: wrap a scarf loosely round your nose and mouth to warm the air before you inhale. Post a selfie, #scarfie.