Overcome Fear by Facing It




Two weeks ago I was scheduled to perform at our local improv theater – The Upfront – here in Bellingham, Washington. And I was thinking about backing out.


I had only performed four times prior and the last time was nine months ago. More to the point, I had had a difficult day and I was feeling stuck in anxiety and overthinking. Maybe I’ll just let Seth know that I’m not going to make it.


I decided to show up.


While in the green room I noticed that I was starting to compare myself to others, noting (assuming) that I had performed the least amount of all of us. Then I decided to be vulnerable with Seth, the one who organized the ensemble for this student show. I told him how I was feeling. And rather than dismissing my fears or telling me not to perform, he said YES to me. He said, “Hey just have fun!” and “You’ve always done great work when we’ve performed before!” and “We’re gonna support each other!”. Seth’s words along with our warm-up games that built connection, flow, and creativity, began shifting my posture. I started leaning in more.


The performance happened.

We improvised!

The audience laughed!

We laughed!

It was such a blast!


And afterwards, though none of my circumstances had changed in my life, I felt totally transformed.


I had faced my fears in a supportive, playful environment.


I had the experience of being in the flow and creating together; making choices, adapting, saying YES!


The six of us enjoyed our time so much together we decided to do it again on December 6!


That night, I was personally experiencing what I am deeply passionate about promoting in the world:

the potency of improv– in the theatre and beyond – to shift our way-of-being from fear/anxiety to connection, engagement, joy, and possibility.


*


How you focus your attention shapes the structure of your brain.


If we focus on our fear and anxiety it can sometimes feel like it fills our horizon. And actually we can become addicted to the neurochemical rush we experience when we are anxious. Our society is constantly feeding us what we crave to keep the habit escalating. There is a tsunami of anxiety in our world.


Judith Orloff, M.D. observes:

Our world is in the midst of an emotional meltdown. As a psychiatrist, I've seen that many people are addicted to the adrenaline rush of anxiety, known as "the fight or flight response" and don't know how to diffuse it. An example of this is obsessively watching the news about natural disasters, trauma, economic stress, and violence, then not being able to turn bad news off. Also, people are prone to "techno-despair" a term I coined in my book. It is a state of high anxiety that results from information overload and internet addiction. It's also related to our super-dependence on smart phones and the panic of feeling disconnected if technology breaks down and we can't access emails or other communications--a new version of what's psychiatrically known as an "attachment disorder."*

She wrote this seven years ago. We are now more fully entrenched in these patterns as a culture.


As with any addiction, so it is with fear and anxiety. It doesn’t just work to will a change. The brain has formed its self around those experiences. The good news is that it can re-form again. It’s called neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think, that once we arrived in adulthood our brains were set for life. Now we know that our brains and therefore ways of being in the world can indeed change! This is liberating news!


Brad Fortier has done some inspiring work doing applied improv with refugees. He cites the work of Steven Mithen:

“Play and laughter move cognition from an amygdala-centered place (fight/flight/freeze) to the neocortex where higher social functions are processed.”**

Think about this in the realm of your workplace. If there is an organizational climate of fear, there are organizational patterns, neural pathways writ-large that keep our thinking from an amygdala-centered place. And if our choices there are to fight (argue, block), flight (avoidance), or freeze (paralyzed from taking action), then our choices are very limited indeed.


However, what if we could live and work in a collaborative space of trust, support, connection, engagement, and possibility? What if we could be present to each other, facing problems (rather than avoiding) in a supportive environment?


Do you want this?


Are you willing to risk belief that it’s possible?


And what’s one step you can take, that could lead to more?


We are all improvisers. That’s already true.

The question is: How much do you want to lean in?



#FacingAnxiety #appliedimprov #organizationalChange #neuroplasticity



*Source of Judith Orloff quote: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201104/are-you-addicted-anxiety-learn-how-not-be

**Brad Fortier references the work of: Mithen, Steven. 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames & Hudson. In T.R. Dudeck and C. McClure. (Eds.), Applied Improvisation (p.101) London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

©2019 by David Westerlund. Photo credits: Ramona Laird, Alvin Shim, and David Westerlund.