Laughing in the Face of Anxiety

By Tracy Agyemang

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” – Miles Davis

My anxiety is like a childhood bestie who knows all your secrets but refuses to give you the space to grow up. It’s that friend that you’ll have to escape if you’re ever going to grow into your ideal self rather than remain a stuck, scared, obnoxious child. Over the years, I’ve finally learned to accept the companionship of my anxiety. It can be very instructive and even grounding when I’m paying attention.

When I first moved to Cincinnati three years ago all of my anxieties resurfaced with an aggressive verve. All I wanted to do was ditch it like an embarrassing cousin at a garden party. I don’t blame the anxiety for rearing it’s annoying head. If the stress of moving to a wholly new part of the country wasn't enough (from NYC to Cincy), I am newly married and contending with the yearning to be a mother that only non-mothers who have been diagnosed with infertility can experience. To add an extra heap of poop emoji, I decided to contribute to the upheaval of my life by changing careers (from litigator to employee engagement counsel).

top to bottom: Elaine Weatherby, Chris Wang, and Trace Agyeman, IC'S Scholars for summer 2018.

top to bottom: Elaine Weatherby, Chris Wang, and Trace Agyeman, IC'S Scholars for summer 2018.

We humans aren’t known for reacting well to change. Something about evolution and survival. When I first noticed how profoundly my New York style (overdressed), demeanor (too blunt), and sensibilities (too chummy) would isolate me from what’s expected or even accepted in my new environment, I slowly began to tone my personality down. I subconsciously figured that if I was ever going connect with Cincinnatians, I’d better lead with my trusty representative. A wall went up. Through mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation I discovered that I had developed survival tactics that were serving my anxious thoughts rather than quieting them. That discovery is what led me to my first Improv Cincy workshop.

Letting Go of Ego

Under the definition of personality types that describes introverts as those are drained of energy (versus infused with energy) as a result of social interactions--I’m an introvert. While I don’t carry some of the stereotypical emblems of introverts such as shyness or fear of public speaking, I can usually be found in the dark corner silently reading a book or watching a movie after a dinner party. Recharging quietly after a dinner party is imperative for me. But thanks my former career as a litigator, I’m comfortable with public speaking.

I signed up for a two-hour Intro to Improv Workshop hoping to develop two specific tools: 1) offering vulnerability to strangers; and relatedly: 2) tuning out the Statler and Waldorf, Americas favorite hecklers. Experience has taught me that offering vulnerability and getting the haters in my head to pipe down, would benefit me and my new career in ways that all the networking happy hours in the world could not. Experience teaches us that revealing our authentic selves rather than our “representatives” to others leads us to higher-quality interactions. Plus, I figured these tools might even make “networking” kinda-sorta bearable.

Not only did I pick up the element of letting go, at my very first class, I also got hooked on the group’s playfulness and laughter. That environment, while intentional, is also the product of the mindfulness that is necessary to effectively perform improv. It’s not unusual for improv students to describe the stage as “a space free of judgment or fear of failure.” It's an ideal environment for people who struggle with social anxiety or other types of anxiety disorders. I’ve turned down social interactions to avoid the chorus of hecklers in my head. “Social anxiety is all about inhibition and self-censorship, and that’s exactly what improv helps flip around,” said David Carbonell, a Chicago-based psychologist and anxiety specialist who runs a workshop for people with a fear of public speaking that incorporates elements of improv.

When Colin, our instructor,  shared details about the diversity scholarship for their eight-week Level 1 Class, my other dear friend, Anxiety’s first cousin, Procrastination, did not make an appearance for once. I applied for the scholarship immediately and was swiftly accepted, much to my happiness.

As my classmates and I gear up to perform our first Class Showcase, I wish I could say that improv cured my anxiety. It hasn’t. But, I have learned to build relationships of trust while performing with my classmates. Trusting virtual strangers to support my imagination and foster it. Trust that they have my back in a scene. I’ve developed a more intuitive understanding of how to create and sustain that rapport with others outside of my class, too.

My heart still races every single time it’s my turn to perform or step into a scene. Yet, I’ve learned to trust myself, or at least recognize the signs that my fears are arresting my essential kindness. I’ve learned that when we’re scared, we tend to revert to our limbic-selves--a self more inclined to close off and build walls. I’ve learned to recognize how essential listening to someone else can be to quieting the voices in my head. Or at the very least, how critical it is to practice being truly present in order to truly enjoy new, unfamiliar humans. Essentially, I’ve learned to laugh in the face of my anxiety because that’s what you do with old
friends. You laugh. A lot.