The comedian Russell Brand recently launched and hosted ‘Give It Up for Comic Relief’ an all-star gig to raise money for people in the UK affected by drug and alcohol addiction. As a recovering addict himself Russell is passionate about raising the awareness of abstinence based recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and speaks candidly about his own journey.
I was recently asked to explore how learning improvisation skills could support people in recovery to find more fulfilment in a life free from using drugs or alcohol. Here are my findings based on many years of teaching improv to a diverse range of delegates from CEOs and entrepreneurs to incarcerated addicts and homeless teenagers.
Addiction thrives in an environment of secrecy, isolation and distrust where the thinking of an addict ultimately reduces to one binary choice – to use or not use drugs. Using is predictable and in a perverse way this makes it feel “safe”. Primal parts of the brain are engaged in a repeated pattern which is reinforced by a corrupted survival instinct. We are hard wired to seek warmth, safety and comfort and by using drugs and staving off withdrawal symptoms the addict is crudely satisfying these basic urges. When not using drugs an addict feels raw, lonely and exposed and that something fundamental is missing; an addict generally has to maintain the secrecy of their addiction from non-addicts, so they live a series of lies which isolates them further. Other people are seen not as a source of connection and support but simply as a means to an end – getting and using drugs. The average addict acquires a formidable array of manipulative role playing skills.
Improvisation, on the other hand can only flourish in an environment of safety, trust, openness and collaboration. A skilled improv teacher creates a non-shaming atmosphere where mistakes are celebrated and the past is immediately dropped as the next moment unfolds. Here are some of the ways in which learning improvisation benefits those in recovery:
- Building Confidence: The experience of being in a group of people who have agreed to learn without blame or shame allows an addict to take part without fear of condemnation. Most addicts have more than enough shame and self-hatred already! By joining in an improv session they also get to receive the authentic and instant positive feedback of laughter.
- Sparking New Neural Pathways: Addictive thinking is by nature repetitive. Improvisation thinking is novel and surprising so addicts experience accessing a range of choices in a safe environment where none of their choices are “wrong” This creates a profound shift in the thinking process away from an “either/or” mentality and towards a more open range of options. This supports problem solving when an addict is faced with new choices.
- It Is Enjoyable: Many addicts experience ahedonia – the loss of the ability to feel pleasure as an after effect of disrupting the dopamine circuits of the brain. This is often a factor in relapse as an addict comes to believe that they need drugs or alcohol to have fun. This message is consistently reinforced by alcohol advertising. I find in working with CEOs and thought leaders that they are genuinely amazed that they can laugh a lot without alcohol. Laughter releases floods of endorphins and lowers cortisol levels and we then seek to repeat this experience.
- Healthy Risk: Improvisation is unpredictable and requires self-management every step of the way. Addicts learn that they don’t need self-flagellation to make progress in learning new life skills. They learn it is OK to make mistakes and try again while satisfying the thrill seeking impulse that wrongly equates abstinence with boredom.
- Collaboration: Improvisation flourishes when people work together and grinds to a halt when the ego tries to compete or to control the process. This is an instant feedback mechanism and addicts learn to reach out for support and to support others. Addict learn they have something to offer and that they can trust other people
- Expanding Learning: The skills acquired in learning improvisation soon spread outside of the training room. The basic principles of listening, saying yes and commitment are easy to remember and to apply in real life. Addicts can stop taking themselves and life so seriously and become open to new experiences – maybe we all can.