Perceptual Stress Therapy and Applied Improvisation Techniques: Stress to Success!


Perceptual stress therapy and Applied Improvisation are both full proof ways of helping people manage their stress by getting them to perceive such stress in a newer more positive light through seeing it as something that can fuel their power rather than deter it. In this article, you will learn about the similar benefits of both perceptual stress therapy and applied improvisation, and how they, through different tactics, work to accomplish the same goal.

Stress is one of the most common problems we face in our day to day lives. According to the National Institute of health, 25% of Americans have accounted for high stress, and 50% have noted a dominant stressful circumstance in their lives during the last year (Oken et al.1). Luckily, perceptual stress therapy and applied improvisation are here to help us not only minimize our stress, but be comfortable with it, and use it to our advantage! Often, perceptual stress therapy and applied improvisation are seen as two completely different things, when in fact, they are more similar than they look. Now, what exactly is perceptual stress therapy? Reno, Nevada, behavioral optometrist, Rick Meier, offers a wonderful characterization:

Everyone asks and seeks to answer the question, “What do you want?”. Perceptual stress therapy can assist with the answer by enhancing the ability to make mistakes and accept the consequences in a safe environment. Central focused processing allows a person to accomplish a task. Peripheral awareness allows a person to see opportunities. Efficiently combining central and peripheral processing with timing allows for flow to happen.

An example of Perceptual Stress Therapy with timing is to take a book and read the first and last letter of each line for 20 lines to a metronome beat, starting at 80 bpm and increasing to 120 bpm. The text size is 10 point type, and the space between the first and last letter is 3-4 inches. Sounds easy. Do 5 per day, building up your speed. Now to increase your stress, touch the letters with a fine point marker while saying the letter out loud to the beat. The goal is 120 bpm with an accuracy of touching letters at 90%. Now to add more stress, say the next letter of the alphabet out loud to the beat, i.e., a becomes b, g becomes an h and so on.
The goal/point of these activities is to overload the perceptual systems (vision, auditory, tactical, somatic-sensory) and to find a safe zone to achieve but to see there are bigger goals to overcome. The hardest task is to try and also accept your mistakes. With focused, determined practice, your performance will increase, and timing will be better.

Meier’s perceptual therapy description points to its likeness to applied improvisation. Like perceptual stress therapy, applied improvisation also helps us to answer the crucial question, “What do you want?” In applied improvisation, participators, before entering an unscripted scene, are told to have an objective, i.e., a goal/something that they want to do. Thus, applied improvisation always encourages us to come back to that important question of what we want, and what’s more, it teaches us how to get it through the use of tactics. In scenes, improvisers are asked to use tactics or methods to achieve their objectives best. The act of goal setting and trying tactics that will sometimes succeed and fail transcends scene work as it prepares applied improvisation participants for addressing their real-life objectives. Like perceptual stress therapy, applied improvisation instills a fearlessness in trying tactics as it helps you embrace mistakes and strengthen resilience in stressful circumstances.

And similarly to the activities described by Meier, applied improvisation does this by also overloading the perceptual system. Just as in the reading exercise, improvisers’ visual, auditory, tactical, and somatic senses are stimulated as they must relate and interact with others in scenes and help move the scenes forward while also working towards their objectives. This requires a lot of eye contact and listening!

Thus, both perceptual stress therapy and applied improvisation can help us manage our stress by teaching us to be successful despite stress, i.e., getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. If we can do that, stress doesn’t stand a chance against our resilience. Are you ready to transform your stress from an obstacle to an aid?

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