10 Ways Improv Could Help Heal Trauma

Disclaimer: This post has been inspired by the work of qualified trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score. The writer of this blog post is not a qualified psychologist, psychotherapist, or trauma-informed professional. They have lived. And they have improvised.

A number of years ago, I attended a weekend course with Logan Murray on Comedy Writing. I really liked Logan. He had such a positive perspective on what stand-up and character comedy could be: fun. Also the creative retreat where we were staying, The Grange, was gorgeous and it regularly set out complimentary fridge cake, which was basically a mass of biscuits, chocolate, and raisins smushed together.

What kind of heaven was this?

Once I had arrived, and immediately eaten the said fridge cake, I dumped my bags in my room and forced myself out into the communal area in search of my fellow participants. Contrary to what I’m sure some people believe of me, I can find this kind of activity a hurdle: attending a thing on my own, meeting new people, complex social interactions… I’ve only got anywhere near good at it through pushing myself into the fray.

There’s a story my mother loves to tell about how she was dropping me off at Brownies when I was seven. I was sat in the car scared about going into the hall because I’d be doing my ‘Hostess’ badge and I’d have to talk to lots of unknown adults. After a while of worrying, I did end up going inside – small scared seven-year-old me, clutching my brownie bag to my little person body and stepping unsteadily onwards.

Whenever I’m in similar situations now, and feel the fear rising up, I summon whatever energy propelled that seven-year-old forward and drag myself along to the ‘party’. So I propelled my adult body into the main room at the creative retreat, complete with cosy fireplace, chess board and big hugging armchairs. There was a couple sitting there playing chess to whom I got chatting.

Then this very old gentleman entered the room. He was frail and walking with the assistance of a stick. I’m going to call him Guy. That wasn’t his name but it would be inappropriate to reveal his real one. Plus that’s a convenient cover for me having forgotten it.

But I haven’t forgotten him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him.

After a little more chat, the couple disappeared, leaving me and Guy alone.

Quite suddenly to me, Guy started talking about Dresden. I’m not sure how we’d got there but somehow we were back in the War. I had the strong impression he’d swept me up and installed me inside his plane. We were soaring over the German city during WWII and Guy was prepping to drop the first of the bombs. He was a gunner and his orders had been clear: destroy the enemy… which in this case happened to be a city of civilians. I have paraphrased this from Guy’s words which have now become a bit of a blur, as time can do to words, but not to Guy’s traumatic memories.

“Churchill was just so persuasive.” Guy said and he started to cry as he reflected on how the city had been full of all kinds of people, full of women and children. And how he’d released bombs on them.

“I’ve never talked about this to anyone,” said Guy apologising and wiping away the tears now falling down his face. He’d had to live with this pain inside him for 70 years. It had defined his life because after that he’d had to live differently. He’d had to live with trauma.

Guy could have been many people. He’d had to go through something so horrible his mind, body and brain had been affected and he’d had so much shame, survivor guilt, and pain he’d had to bury it away. He’d got stuck, both not being able to ‘go there’, but not being able to go anywhere else either.

We tend to think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as being something people only suffer from who’ve been in war zones, like Guy was, but that isn’t how it works. This is actually dangerous thinking because it can lead to disowning the trauma further. We might feel we don’t deserve to feel it. Surely what happened to me wasn’t that bad?

Your body, mind and brain may disagree.

A staggering amount of people experience neglect, abuse, conflict, violence, addiction, or unpredictable behaviour in their childhoods. And this can also lead to trauma… complex trauma even, which we might be unaware we have, because our minds can do a lot to protect us. I’ve recently been reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score and it’s a captivating read. I started reading it because I watched a thoroughly intriguing conversation between him and Dr Ragan Chatterjee.

During the discussion surrounding trauma in the body, Bessel Van Der Kolk talks about therapies his research team have identified as useful in processing trauma. To my surprise one of the main ones he talked about was ‘Theatre’. I went on to discover that he’s written a whole chapter about it in his book.

Bessel tells us about the struggles his son was having with a number of physical symptoms that got labelled as ‘chronic fatigue’. When his mother noticed her son’s energy spiked at 5pm, his parents signed him up to an evening class that proved transformative.

What was that class in?

You might have guessed it… Improvisational theatre.

“Love and hate, aggression and surrender, loyalty and betrayal are the stuff of theatre and the stuff of trauma. As a culture we are trained to cut ourselves off from the truth of what we are feelingTraumatised people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control. In contrast, theatre is about embodying emotions, giving voice to them, becoming rhythmically engaged, taking on and embodying different roles.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score

I’d highly recommend reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s important book. In the meantime, inspired by Bessel’s work, here are ten ways practising improv could be help in healing from trauma.

1. Making things happen: Doing something active with other people can offer an alternative to learned helplessness. Trauma has us feeling we are powerless. Instead of having agency, we feel like things are happening to us. Through improvising as characters in scenes, we have the opportunity to practise moving things forward.

2. Acting out different ways to be: – Trauma gets us fixed in certain roles. Theatre enables us to experience what it is like to feel differently by playing different parts, e.g. by playing someone with power, someone high status, or a villain.

3. Embodying power: – Research has shown the importance of body shapes and body language in enhancing our mood and confidence. By stepping into the body of someone else we find ourselves needing to stand differently, walk differently, and hold space differently. This can send messages to our brain about who we are and contradict the messages of trauma.

4. Moving: – Trauma causes us to become immobile. We might even freeze as a fear response and get stuck there. Bessel says, “We express our aliveness through the movements we make.” He talks about how we need to get back to our bodies after trauma and find ways to feel safe there. Moving purposefully in physical theatre can contribute to this process.

5. Connecting with others: – Trauma cuts us off from others. Rediscovering our capacity to connect with those around us is very important. Bessel has observed how people healing from trauma benefit from being in compassionate communities, not in isolation. Trauma pushes us to withdraw. Improv encourages us to connect.

6. Broadening our perception: – In creating bigger worlds to inhabit you can help broaden your mind and perspective. Trauma has us shutting down and shrivelling up to protect ourselves. Imagining rich realities and other worlds with different rules can help us to expand our minds. Some people do this through psychedelics. We’ve got improv.

7. Being present: – The effects of trauma can have you feeling like you are being pulled back into the past. It can even seem like you are still living in the past. You may also experience an overwhelming fear of the future. Practicing being in the present moment, calmly coping there, and being focused on what is happening right now is another great way to retrain our minds and bodies.

8. Becoming more comfortable with conflict: – Bessel Van Der Kolk expresses this beautifully.

“Traumatised people are afraid of conflict. They fear losing control and ending up on the losing side once again. Conflict is central to theatre – inner conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, family conflicts, social conflicts, and their consequences. Trauma is about trying to forget, hiding how scared, enraged, or helpless you are. Theatre is about finding ways of telling the truth and conveying deep truths to your audience. This requires pushing through blockages to discover your own truth, exploring and examining your own internal experience so that it can emerge in your voice and body on stage.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score

9. Speaking our truth: – Trauma becomes much more of a problem when it is coupled with silence and shame. By speaking the seemingly unutterable, even through a character, it can be an important step in owning our own stories. When we put our experiences into the voice of a character on stage we also create space between us and the experience, making it easier to see it objectively. I’ve found this particularly effective through improvised song.

10. Letting go of shame: – Shame is a big contributing factor to keeping us stuck in trauma. By becoming more shame resilient we can work through that which we have previously hidden. Improv can also help us along that journey by giving us the opportunity of seeing, hearing and embodying many different characters with many different backgrounds, and who do many different things, some of which could be seen as embarrassing or even shameful. But as the late Alan Rickman said: “If you judge the character you can’t play it.” Improv can help us to stop judging ourselves so harshly, as we learn to do the same for our characters.

It’s so important to remember that the effects of trauma can happen to any of us. If it’s happened to you, you are not alone. You are also not weak. You are strong; you have survived and your body is trying to protect you from a perceived threat/s. You might like to try this hypnotherapy recording by Suzanne Robichaud that helps in letting go of the shame surrounding trauma.

Trauma can have us feeling we must isolate, we must make ourselves small, we must hide and ignore our hurt or it might overwhelm us. But trauma doesn’t know what’s best for us, or even what’s any good for it, We need to be around people, to feel big and bold, to feel seen and heard.

Even by calling on all of my courageous seven-year-old energy, I struggled to get back on the stage as an adult, so I went the long way around and first had some therapy that involved hypnosis. Bessel Van Der Kolk observed how talking therapies weren’t always the most effective way of helping people process trauma, complex trauma and PTSD, but this doesn’t mean a more cognitive-based therapy couldn’t really help. Everyone’s journey is unique. Bessel suggests trying lots of different therapies, and in combination, to find what works for you. Other activities that his research showed to be beneficial included: yoga, EDMR, acupuncture, communal singing and dancing.

So when it comes to healing, musical improv may well be a winning formula!


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