April is Stress Awareness Month, and while stress can loom on the horizon like a rain-cloud or just show up like an uninvited house guest, it’s our awareness of how we handle stress that can be beneficial. Even more, looking for ways to avoid stress altogether can be a game changer.
During times of stress we all have a hamster that runs on a wheel inside of our head (just me?…yeah, I didn’t think so). The hamster runs and runs, exerting a ton of energy and effort but getting nowhere in the process. However, that little fella does accomplish something with all that running: he powers a self-sustaining battery of anxiety that results in overthinking, over-analyzing and a potential lack of forward momentum.
“Being fearless keeps that hamster resting quietly in a teensy-weensy Barcalounger: feet up, reading a magazine and eating miniature Cheetos.”
People often ask improvisers how we can stand in front of a room full of people with no script, no props and no set. The thought of that alone is enough to make some people feel quite nervous. And yet, for improvisers, this scenario of bright lights, big crowd and no plan is thrilling. It’s exciting because we’ve learned to shift our perspective on what’s stressful. Instead of experiencing anxiety, we’ve made friends with anxiety’s first-cousin: anticipation. It’s a subtle yet powerful adjustment that builds an air of fearlessness.
Being fearless keeps that hamster resting quietly in a teensy-weensy Barcalounger: feet up, reading a magazine and eating miniature Cheetos. We develop the ability to respond quickly when things don’t go as originally planned while still creating effective and creative solutions. We’re mentally available and agile.
It takes work, practice and tools to build good habits, and good habits create a mental muscle-memory that automatically redirects what was once stressful into something that’s easy to navigate.
Here are tools that improvisers use regularly that can help reduce stress in the workplace.
We’ve all been guilty of checking out when someone else is talking. Often, this is because we’re trying to formulate our response before we even have all the information. Not only is this often presumptive, but it’s inefficient and counter-productive. Thinking too far ahead defeats the purpose. Breathe. Listen. Gather information. Build on that information.
Let’s face it, a little bit of self-focus never hurt anyone, but too much and we’re not open and available. Improvisers are tasked with being others focused, meaning: my job is to make sure my scene partner has all the things they need to succeed, and they’ll do the same for me in return. (Our hamsters are in this together!) It absolutely takes the pressure off when you start considering how things might seem in someone else’s shoes and you have a consideration for someone else’s point of view. Being others focused allows us more empathy and empathy often dissipates tension.
Being curious keeps an improviser in a perpetual state of “What If,” looking for and exploring possibilities. “What if” keeps us anticipating opportunities, and if we’re anticipating we don’t have much time to feel anxious. This mindset also helps develop multiple solutions and with an abundance of options, there’s less room for stres
Improvisers thrive on being surprised. Not scary movie surprised but “I hadn’t thought of that” surprised. We are waiting for it and ready for it. These moments fuel forward momentum instead of causing a derailment because we’ve learned to pivot quickly and try something different. We know that fighting to do the same thing over and over can cause stagnation. The unexpected can lead to something new and fresh.
Starting is often the hardest part and great ideas often begin in a pretty raw form. Over-thinking the starting point or trying to edit too much as we go can impair our job performance. Look at the tulip: such an ugly bulb but what a beautiful blossom. If we judged that weird looking bulb as all it could ever be, we’d stop there and that’s all it would be. But with earth, water, sunlight and time it can evolve into a gorgeous flower. (Just imagine a little vase of tulips next to your hamster’s tiny Barcalounger!). Improvisers know that where we end up is often far away from where we start and that when we hang in there and add our input, there’s likely no idea we can’t make work.
Improvisers learn not to take themselves too seriously. We let our guard down. We see the humor in situations and this in turn broadens our comfort zone. Research shows that laughter relaxes muscles, boosts the immune systems, releases endorphins and decreases stress hormones. Things can and do go wrong, but finding the levity in a given situation can be a catalyst for problem solving and redirection.
Collectively, these tools and exercises help build the required muscle memory to sidestep anxiety. Being fearless is simply moving forward even when stress and anxiety are present.
Improvisers seem fearless because we are fearless. We’ve learned to be. You and your hamster can to.