Last weekend, I went to a speed-dating event. Just walking up to the door made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I like to think of myself as a social, outgoing person. But when it comes to anything related to dating, I can be painfully shy.


A speed dating event in the U.K. Photo by Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images.

As I got closer to the building, I started to feel like there was some horrible, inaudible, invisible static in the air that only I could sense. To anyone else, I'm sure everything looked perfectly normal — the bar was nice, all the people I met were very lovely ... but I couldn't help but feel that static playing across the back of my neck.

I was, in other words, anxious.

Everyone gets anxious sometimes, and that's OK.

Image via iStock.

In fact, anxiety is a normal and evolutionary biological response to stressful situations. Our brains are really good at linking bad experiences (like awkward dates) and stimuli together, mostly because it keeps us safe.

If something bad happens and then you're in a similar situation in the future (like, say, having to talk to nearly 20 strangers in five-minute increments), your brain holds up big signs to help you remember to stay safe — signs like that prickling feeling on the back of my neck.

Other signs can be mental symptoms, like hypervigilance or intrusive thoughts, or physical ones, like a racing heartbeat or feeling nauseous or dizzy. And these can sometimes be really, really hard to ignore.

"[Anxiety is] a whole-body, a whole-mind, a whole-person experience," Dr. Michael Irvine told Upworthy.

Irvine is a clinical psychologist who knows a lot about anxiety. He's worked extensively with combat veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that, at its heart, is about anxiety.

“It’s not just battling your thoughts. The work isn’t just trying to convince yourself not to be scared. Anxiety is a reflex."

Irvine explained that fighting off anxiety isn't as simple as just ignoring those anxious feelings.

“It’s not just battling your thoughts," said Irvine. "The work isn’t just trying to convince yourself not to be scared. Anxiety is a reflex."

And anxiety doesn't just affect our bodies and minds; it can actually affect how we see the world every day.

An anxious job applicant, circa 1940. Photo by Rondal Patridge/National Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

An experiment from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel showed clearly that having anxiety can affect our ability to process sights and sounds.

Researchers from the lab set up the experiment by training volunteers with specific sounds. They taught them that some sounds had good outcomes (gaining money), and some had bad outcomes (losing money).

Then they played the good and bad sounds, plus some benign and neutral ones, back to the volunteers. And what they found was fascinating: The volunteers with anxiety were more likely to identify benign sounds as bad sounds, too, even though those sounds were neutral.

Why? It wasn't a conscious decision. Instead, the anxious volunteers' brains had automatically overcompensated. In trying to keep them safe, their brains had changed the way they perceived all the sounds, not just the bad ones.

This might sound like an odd scenario, but it helps to explain why the speed-dating event was so weird for me. To outsiders, the event looked like a couple dozen young people enjoying themselves. But to my brain, through the filter of anxiety, the event was suddenly attached to bad dates of years past and uncomfortable social interactions. What might seem benign to everyone else actually looked much worse to me.

Sometimes, though, our brains take it too far.

Anxiety is normal — especially after a bad event — but, similar to how an overactive immune system can give us allergies, our brain's natural protective response can sometimes overcompensate. And when anxiety progresses to the point where it disrupts your everyday life, that's when it becomes what psychologists would call an anxiety disorder.

The U.S. Army now requires soldiers take suicide awareness classes. PTSD, an anxiety disorder, may be associated with higher suicide rates in soldiers. Photo from Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

About 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S. is affected by an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders come in a lot of different forms, too, ranging from social anxiety disorder to PTSD.

I don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but for folks who do, the symptoms can be really paralyzing. Those intrusive thoughts and physical symptoms can keep people with anxiety disorders from leaving the house. The symptoms can make them struggle at work and seriously affect their quality of life.

The stigma of having an anxiety disorder can be just as tough as the symptoms, too.

Image from iStock.

Even though 1 in 5 people struggles with it, people who are living with anxiety disorders often feel like they should be able to fix themselves alone — to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In a 2007 survey, only 25% of people with mental health symptoms said they believed people would be sympathetic to their stories.

But in reality, anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of; it's just your brain working extra hard. Plus, talking about your struggles and looking for treatment early are some of the best strategies for managing it.

"The earlier we intervene on the timeline, the more likely an individual is to get a better outcome," said Irvine.

So biologically, it's not too weird to have a prickly-neck feeling or an upset stomach while meeting a bunch of strangers.

But when your brain is dealing with anxiety, especially an anxiety disorder, it actually functions differently. Things that might be benign suddenly seem scary. Meeting potential dates might make you really sweat. An overwhelming feeling of being unsettled might come over you just as you enter a new place that reminds you of an old place.

That is OK. Because even though we can't always control how our brains see the world, or what warnings signs they throw in our faces (needed or not), we've got nothing to be ashamed of when we start to feel anxious.

And if you ever run into me at another speed-dating event, I hope you'll cut me some extra slack.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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