If you're living with anxiety, here's what you need to know about your brain.

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.

Family

On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

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Cadbury has removed the words from its Dairy Milk chocolate bars in the U.K. to draw attention to a serious issue, senior loneliness.

On September 4, Cadbury released the limited-edition candy bars in supermarkets and for every one sold, the candy giant will donate 30p (37 cents) to Age UK, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the elderly.

Cadbury was prompted to help the organization after it was revealed that 225,000 elderly people in the UK often go an entire week without speaking to another person.

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Young people today are facing what seems to be greater exposure to complex issues like mental health, bullying, and youth violence. As a result, teachers are required to be well-versed in far more than school curriculum to ensure students are prepared to face the world inside and outside of the classroom. Acting as more than teachers, but also mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders, they must be equipped with practical and relevant resources to help their students navigate some of the more complicated social issues – though access to such tools isn't always guaranteed.

Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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One of the major differences between women and men is that women are often judged based on their looks rather than their character or abilities.

"Men as well as women tend to establish the worth of individual women primarily by the way their body looks, research shows. We do not do this when we evaluate men," Naomi Ellemers Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today.

Dr. Ellers believes that this tendency to judge a woman solely on her looks causes them to be seen as an object rather than a person.

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