Today’s guest post is from Jon Hershfield, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with the UCLA Pediatric OCD Intensive Outpatient Program and MFT in private practice. Jon is co-presenting Improv for Anxiety with the team from The Second City Training Center in Hollywood at this year’s Annual OCD Conference. Today’s blog offers a preview into this exciting workshop.
In show business, improvisation entails showing up on a stage without a script, in front of an audience, with a scene partner (or partners) and remaining engaged in the present moment even as it continues to evolve around you. In other words, showing off your tolerance of uncertainty.
If you have OCD, you may often feel as if you’re trying to follow a script. The OCD script says “that’s dirty” and that’s your cue to wash, for example. Straying from the script comes with consequences (fear, guilt, disgust, pain, to name a few…). But if you’re in treatment for OCD, you’re probably being asked to stray from the script a lot. That’s what exposure with response prevention (ERP) is all about — being in front of the thing you fear and doing something different. Resisting compulsions is difficult and requires a set of skills. Many of these skills are utilized in theatrical improvisation.
The Second City is an organization that has been training actors and writers in the art of improvisation since 1959. They began in Chicago and later established programs in Toronto and Los Angeles, training such comic icons and Saturday Night Live veterans as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. At the 2012 conference in Chicago, the IOCDF offered “Improv for Anxiety,” an improvisation workshop developed by The Second City and anxiety specialist Mark Pfeffer, MFT, where anxiety and OCD sufferers could learn the tricks of the improv trade. The program returns this year at the 21st Annual Conference with help from The Second City Training Center in Hollywood. I have the great privilege of working with the team from The Second City to develop this workshop for the upcoming conference — serving as a kind of bridge between the world of improv and the OCD community — and I am excited to share a preview of some of the skills we will explore in the Improv for Anxiety workshop.
When I first started working with The Second City, I attended their fantastic free introductory workshop called A Taste of Second City at their studio in Hollywood. The program consists of a series of hilarious and challenging games and exercises, each addressing a different element of what makes a great piece of improvisational comedy click.
Long before I became an OCD therapist, I was an actor, and it was a somewhat haunting experience finding myself in Hollywood again one Saturday afternoon, in an old creaky building, a musty actor’s studio, the Hollywood sign visible on the mountain from the classroom window. It got me thinking mindfully. Mindfulness is the ability to observe what is going on in the present moment without judgment or analysis. This includes simply noticing the thoughts and feelings going on inside you, as if watching them play out on some kind of stage themselves. You’re close to the thoughts, but not too close. Instead, you’re in the audience and the thoughts are on the stage. At Taste of Second City, it became abundantly clear that the skills each exercise aimed to develop for onstage excellence were the same mindfulness skills you might want to develop for that OCD stage in your head.
For example, “DO, DO, DO, DO,” is an improv exercise in which everyone stands in a circle. One person says a word, then the person next to them says that word and another word, then the person next to them says their neighbor’s word and a new word, and so on. The trick is to resist the urge to plan and mentally rehearse what word you’re going to say, but instead just wait for the person before you to say their word and come up with something on the spot. Don’t think! Don’t think! So it might sound something like dog, dog-cat, cat-fur, fur-coat, coat-weather, weather-cold, and so on. Of course, in my OCD mind, I’m also holding back a deluge of the wrong things to say. (Good God, man, don’t say pedophile, cancer, murder, or AIDS!)
So the challenge is this: wait. Wait your turn, listen, and then respond. Trusting yourself comes from giving yourself responsibility. Give yourself the responsibility of waiting, listening, then responding, and trust that whatever comes out is something you can cope with. Consider how your ability to trust that you can cope with whatever happens next might help you stray from the OCD script and resist a compulsion.
In “YES, AND…” we broke into pairs and were given the instruction to have a discussion about a given subject (in our case, we were to talk about opening a restaurant). The rule is that you can’t say much, and you have to start with “yes, and…” — in other words, you can’t dispute or shut down what your scene partner offers you. You can only agree, and add or heighten. This also works in mindfulness for OCD. By observing the intrusive thought and refusing to argue with it, you have to allow it through. By allowing the thought to go through you instead of trying to shut it out, you can circumvent the need for compulsions. Maybe you have a nonsensical intrusive thought about harm coming to a loved one. You might snap and strangle your kid tonight, says the OCD. You could respond with avoidance, reassurance seeking, or any number of mental rituals to try to get certainty that your fear won’t come true. Or you could say, Yes, and… I may finally get to sleep in for a change. Sure, that statement may make you very uncomfortable indeed, but it may also give you the edge over your OCD to resist falling back into the same old script.
In “Different Interpretations of an Activity,” one actor starts a physical activity, then a second actor enters the scene and in one line of dialogue, they suggest a different interpretation of that activity. The actor performing the activity must immediately agree, forfeit their old idea, and commit to the new idea. So, for example, if the first actor is doing jumping-jacks, the second actor may come in and say, “I see you are trying to get someone’s attention!” The first actor must then immediately modify the jumping jacks to look like he is waving his arms and call out “Hey, Bob, over here! No, waaayyyyy over here!” Then, replacing the second actor, another may step in and say to the performer waving his hands back and forth, “You’re never going to wash all of these windows in time,” and the first actor has to immediately portray himself as washing windows. The skill being developed here is the ability to give up your idea on the spot. In theater and in OCD, it’s very easy to become self-absorbed — literally absorbed by yourself, consumed by the content of your thoughts. But neither improv nor life with OCD fare well when it’s just about you. It has to be about the scene.
When you suffer from OCD, your idea about how things are supposed to go can often be abruptly taken from you by an unwanted thought or feeling. You may be out to dinner with your family when your OCD starts whispering that you might have left the stove on at home. Now you have to choose whether to try to sit through dinner while having unwanted thoughts about your house burning down, or cancelling dinner, going home, and doing checking compulsions. But what if you chose option C instead? What if you had lots of practice noticing and accepting the thoughts as they happened? You might instead think, I’m here having these thoughts, I planned on it being one way, but I can allow for it to be another.
Or consider if you were in the middle of performing a compulsion already. Perhaps you were washing your hands because of some fear that something you touched was contaminated. You are committed to completing the washing ritual, getting under the nails, getting between the fingers, counting to the right number and so on, but a little voice in your head says to stop. It’s your healthy voice. Stop doing this compulsion and get back to dinner with your family. But your OCD says you have to finish washing. What if you were adept at simply forfeiting the idea at a moment’s notice? Instead of completing the compulsion, you quickly shut off the faucet and walk away from the sink with your hands still dripping. You forfeit your scripted idea and go with the suggestion of your scene partner, your healthy inner-voice.
The above games are just a small sampling of skill-building exercises you are likely to encounter at Improv for Anxiety at the OCD Conference this year. In addition to having the chance to learn about the art of comedic improvisation, I think it will also present an opportunity to sharpen your OCD-fighting skills. Plus, we will be passing out massive doses of one of the most effective OCD drugs on the market — humor.
Improv for Anxiety starts at 6:30 on Thursday, July 17th in the Los Angeles Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. All conference attendees, age 18 and over, are welcome to attend. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered online now at on our conference registration site, or by calling the IOCDF office at 617-973-5801.