Stress Relief Through Improv Comedy

By now, we all know what stress is. It’s the tension in our muscles, in the room, the jagged flight of our deadlines, to-dos, and should-have-dones as they whiz around our brain. Stress is a roundhouse kick to your night of sleep, it sets your heart rate to an awful 80’s techno beat, and it causes us to join conversations via satellite.

Managers know the negative consequences of a chronically stressed team. Tired employees submit error-prone work as they quietly ignore lunch, exercise and one another. Before long, something breaks. A deadline gets missed, emotions in a meeting boil over, and that tight rubber band ball of stress that had wound itself around your team snaps undone…

…Leaving us shards of rubber bands to shoot at each other as we laugh and unwind in a nice afternoon improv session.

Improv comedy is the antithesis of stress. Where stress preys on future anxiety and past regret, improv comedy focuses solely in one moment: the now.

For years, I’ve relied on evening improv comedy sessions (with friends or coworkers) to center my focus on the present. I’ve taught my students to consider improv on par with yoga, running, and athletics as an “active psychological de-stimulant,” though largely more mental than these counterparts in practice.

By allowing you to jump characters, settings, emotions and stories, participation in an improv scene causes you to separate your daily anxieties into a “not now” category that has no bearing on the present moment.

In improv, there is simply no time nor brain space for stress.

Imagine, for example, whilst in line at the grocery store on an exceptionally stressful day (bills are due, you have to go to the DMV tomorrow, you’re supposed to be home, but you forgot the bay leaves), you run into the one and only _________ (insert a personal celeb icon here). For me, I’d say Steph Curry from the Golden State Warriors.

Steph looks over and says, “Hey – what did you think of last night’s game?

Stumbling over words, you proceed to chat with Steph Curry, totally star struck. Blood rushes to your brain. You can’t believe it. Do you think that, during this short conversation, you would think about tomorrow’s trip to the DMV? Or your phone buzzing in your pocket? Not a chance. You were too busy thinking of words to say in this wholly important, life-altering encounter.

In improv, the need to actively listen and create drowns out the voices of anxiety.

This same “brain CPU-usage” phenomenon also happens in athletics and public speaking — it’s adrenaline-aided focus. In improv, the adrenaline comes from the healthy dose of uncertainty surrounding the success of the scene. Will it be funny? Where are we going with this? How do I react to a panda being in the kitchen? In an effort to establish a context in every foreign situation, the improviser leaves behind the context of the day to day grind.

If you’re tired of the same old attempts to relieve stress (and you laugh too much during yoga), there are several improv exercises for bringing a group of distracted, tired, stressed into the present. Both are easy and take less than 5-minutes. Give them a try at your next scrum:

Giving Fake Presents

Simple (or not so simple) Word Association


Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit improvbridge.com to schedule a class. 

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