Touch Your Self Help
Touch Your Self Help: On Anxiety
By Chad Fifer
May 22, 2008

Most of the time, anxiety makes sense. You’re anxious because you’ve got a big presentation coming up, or you’re going on a first date, or your spooky old pet store is suddenly and suspiciously quiet. You feel nervous and unsettled, but you can deal with it because you know that those feelings will pass, especially if you’re murdered by the very pets you’ve cared for all these years.

Then there are those other times, those terrible times, when anxiety strikes and you don’t know why. Surely there’s a reason, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Was it that driver who cut you off this morning? No, that happens all the time. Maybe it was that expression of disgust on your husband’s face while you were changing? Could be, although you’ve known that he’s secretly gay for many, many days. Maybe your shoes are too tight. Who knows?!

The more you try to figure it out, the worse the feelings of anxiety get. It’s like there’s a giant snake made out of TV static writhing around in your chest, pressing against your lungs, shitting pure dread into your stomach. A giant, dread-shitting static-snake that you didn’t even know you’d swallowed. That’s what you’ve got down there, and you can’t get rid of it.

Well, you’re not alone.

Psychological experts call this type of anxiety “free-floating,” mostly because they have to do something in order to justify being called experts, the snobby bastards. Within my practice, I call this type of anxiety “The Ghostly Burn.” I used to call it “The Stranger,” until one of my buddies taught me this trick where I sit on my hand to make it all numb, and… well… it turns out “The Stranger” is already the name for something else.

Anyway, “The Ghostly Burn” is often the reason my clients come to see me in the first place. They’re people from all walks of life who have found themselves paralyzed by feelings of anxiety they can’t explain – formerly successful, happy people who are now unable to concentrate or move forward with their lives. They sit in front of the television night after night, their lives piling up on the kitchen table, their anxiety only increasing in steady, unbreakable waves as they realize how many tasks they are leaving undone. They are paralyzed. And they need my help.

There are two things I advise my clients to do when The Ghostly Burn attacks. The first is to find calm through simplification. By simplification, I mean reducing all of existence to its simple, binary state: dead or alive. Yes, you are anxious. But no matter how bad you feel, you are not dead. You are alive. Someday you will not be alive, and whatever you are anxious about will not matter, not one bit. So take a deep breath and just let everything else – all the bullshit and all the noise – drift away. Allow the simple fact of your being alive to calm you as your breathing slows and your mind clears of distractions.

By the way, if this process of simplification does not calm you within one or two minutes, you’re probably dying.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: find the underlying source of your unrest. If you discover that you’re anxious because you’re dying, well – there’s nothing I can do about that.* But most of the time, you’re not dying, you’re just upset about one of your BIG FEARS, and the trigger was so small that you don’t even remember it.

For example, last week I was walking down the street and I narrowly avoided stepping on a piece of gum. This reminded me of all the times I’d spit out my own gum without regard for other passers-by. Which reminded me of why I was usually chewing gum to begin with: to mask the smell of Glade on my breath after a secret huffing. Then I saw a dog, and started thinking about monkeys, which should have made me happy for the rest of the day. Instead, 10 minutes later, I was holding my chest, filled with anxiety, and didn’t even know why. The more I tried to recall what had happened to make me feel this way, the more anxious I became. This is when I simplified, calmed myself, and reviewed the BIG FEARS that could be causing my anxiety.

For each of us, no matter what the trigger, there are usually only four or five BIG FEARS that cause anxiety. For you, perhaps it’s fear of failure or fear of loneliness. For many, it’s the paranoid feeling that comes with the fear of being disliked. For me personally, it’s always one of two things: fear of my own carelessness and fear of being discovered. Once I meditated on these two BIG FEARS, the trigger became clear. It was the gum, which had reminded me of my own reckless spitting as well as my secret Glade addiction.** And once I realized it was just the gum, my anxiety subsided and I was able to get back to thinking about monkeys, which was awesome.

With my clients, my job is to help them discover their own four or five BIG FEARS, so that they can slowly, over time, work to dispel them. But simply recognizing these fears is a big step toward dispelling The Ghostly Burn whenever it rears its ghostly, burny head. So as a measure of prevention, Dear Reader, I advise you to start thinking about what your own four or five BIG FEARS are. And here’s a little fear to get you started:

Somethin’ ain’t right in that old pet store, no sir. Somethin’ ain’t natural.


*Seriously, there’s nothing I can do about it. No matter what I said about being a doctor, I can’t help you, so don’t come to my office if you’re planning on doing any dying. I have enough trouble.

**Not a real thing, just something I made up as a metaphor for my drinking problem.***

***Also not real.

More of Chad Fifer's self-help advice can be found here. 

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