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Improv Therapy Helping Many Cope With Depression, Anxiety

CHICAGO (CBS) — People who suffer from depression and other psychological challenges are learning to cope through laughter, with an improv comedy program.

“My darkest days, I was hopeless,” said Angela Nino, founding director of Improv Therapy Group. Nino spoke candidly about her struggles with an eating disorder.

“I didn’t think anyone would miss me. I didn’t think anyone would miss me if I wasn’t here,” she said.

Nate Woogen, who struggled with depression after suffering a concussion, now performs with an improv troupe.

“I had to leave college because of a concussion and then I was depressed,” he said. “I was feeling really down about myself, and I felt I would never accomplish anything or get back on track.”

Fellow improv performer Kat Condes confronted profound grief when her mother died.

“I have very intrusive thoughts that are difficult to manage,” she said. “Inappropriate things that my brain likes to get stuck on.”

These veterans of group therapy now work out their problems through Improv Therapy.

“When I started, I was totally skeptical,” Woogen said.

They call their performance “Therapist Me Off.”

“Just like in group therapy, in improv it’s scary. We have to take risks. We have to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable,” said Katie Bellamy, a clinical supervisor at Gateway Foundation. Bellamy said the hallmarks of therapy and improv include confronting a subject, but releasing control; and not worrying about the repercussions of words or actions.

“If I’m practicing improv, I’m widening my ability to tolerate discomfort, decrease my anxieties,” Bellamy said.

Whether it’s a trigger or a roleplay suggestion, they face the moment as a group.

“I’m going to be surrounded by people who understand. It’s the most connecting thing,” Nino said.

Allowing himself to be vulnerable in the group has given Woogen strength outside.

“I’ve been more open to other people; less cynical,” he said.

“You know you’re with friends, and that’s what makes it feel safe,” Condes said. “That experience is carried over into my everyday life.”

Clinicians say Improv Therapy also helps patients become more empathetic, and improves emotional intelligence.