The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

This post was inspired by Seth Godin’s book LinchpinThis is a book for anyone interested in leading a fucking awesome life.  If you haven’t read it, add it to your bucket list.  In fact, move it to the top.

In the book Godin differentiates between fear and anxiety.  Fear is something that presents a clear and present danger to our life.  Anxiety is something we often call “fear”, when it’s really just exaggerated worry about a worst-case outcome of some future event.  In almost every case, that worry is irrational.

Falling off a 300′ sheer cliff = fear

Cancelling your hiking trip because you may encounter a 300′ sheer cliff = fear

Accidentally stepping on a cobra = fear

Avoiding hiking through… well, wherever cobras live because you may step on a cobra = anxiety

Not accepting a job offer because it may involve public speaking = anxiety

Fear is good.  It’s evolutionary.  It activates our sympathetic nervous system.  It keeps us alive.

Anxiety is bad.  It keeps us from doing interesting and/or fun stuff.  It keeps us paralyzed.  It forces us to always take the safe route.  It forces us to sacrifice that which makes us unique individuals in the name of security.  It kills our ability to create.  It destroys our ability to make our own dent in the universe.

This mistaking fear for anxiety occurs quite often in the running world.  There are an awful lot of very talented and/or hard-working runners out there.  While I don’t think I’m especially talented, I fall into this trap, too.  We have some significant accomplishments.  We have even loftier goals.  The problem- we are held back by anxiety.  We seemingly cannot muster the will to sign up for that REALLY difficult race.



We worry about some worst-case scenario.  We worry about not finishing.  We worry about not being fast enough.  We worry about not being able to finish.  We worry about what others will think if we don’t meet some imaginary expectations.

This worry keeps us from doing cool shit.  It keeps us is a safe, comfortable cocoon.  It keeps us from experiencing life.

Shelly has been writing about fear lately.  Specifically, she has written about confronting the fear of our RV trip.  Quitting our jobs and traveling in a confined place with three small children for over six months offers plenty of opportunity to develop anxiety.

Unknowingly, she is dealing with this anxiety in the exact same way Godin recommends- embrace it.  Don’t bother rationalizing, that just fuels the fire.  It eliminates the anxiety, but does so by rewarding it.  As Eddie Thorndike said, “Responses followed by a satisfying state of affairs are more likely to be repeated.”  [note- I am clearly suffering from “teaching psychology” withdrawals]  This gives us a free pass to develop anxiety more often.  We don’t want that.

By embracing it, we acknowledge its existence.  We accept it.  We shake its hand.  We give it a hug.  We coexist.

When we do this, something magical happens.  The anxiety, while still there, no longer affects our behaviors.  In almost every case, it quickly fades to the background and we can focus on the task at hand.

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Lewiston, Maine right now getting ready to run a barefoot 5k then do a clinic on good form at the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival.  On the trip here, I experienced what I used to think of as fear several times.

  • When driving to the airport, I got stuck in road construction.  I thought I was going to miss my plane.  Fear or anxiety?
  • When I had to go through airport security, my heart began racing.  Fear or anxiety?
  • The flight was delayed and there was a chance I would miss my connecting flight.  Fear or anxiety?
  • When taking off and landing, I had thoughts of “What if the plane crashes?”  Fear or anxiety?

All were examples of anxiety.  I was not in any sort of imminent danger in any of those scenarios.  My anxiety probably prevented me from experiencing more enjoyment in every one of those situations.  If only I had followed Shelly’s lead…

Mid-flight, I read the section of Linchpin that talks about fear and anxiety.  At that point, I recognized the fear I had perceived.  I made a conscious decision.  For the rest of the trip, I will purposely seek out situations that produce anxiety to practice this idea embracing it.

I have a few hours before the race and clinic.  Task one- go check out the Atlantic Ocean.  I have never been to a beach on the Atlantic.  I am worried I will be late for the race, but that’s irrational.  If I let that anxiety rule, I’d spend the next three hours holed up in my hotel room.  Better yet, I’m not using GPS.  I’m going old-school and buying one of those paper Google Maps at the gas station.

What about you?  Do you often confuse fear and anxiety?  We often regret the things we chose not to do, and anxiety over a possible negative outcome is almost always the reason.  What is one thing you DID NOT do because of anxiety?  How about overcoming that anxiety?  What is a one thing you DID do despite your anxiety?  Tell us your story in the comments.



6 thoughts on “The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

  1. kay, i’ll tell ya, but i won’t like it. doing NC 24 hour last fall was the most traumatic thing my body has ever been through. emotionally and mentally i was broken. i hated every silly effing step of that race for a myriad of reasons and when folks asked if i’d ever 24 again i would say ‘yea, someday…’ but really what i was thinking was: never. EVER EVER EVER EVER again! over my dead body! i held this line for the last 9 months. and i am still terrified. so ask me why in hell i am registered for hinson lake 24 this fall? i dunno – God told me to? is that a legitimate reason to give an agnostic? well, too bad if it isn’t because God told me to. and i am obeying. i have a stinky feeling He wants to teach me a lesson about fear, and personal power and He is going to do it the best way He knows how – by making me face it.


  2. I have often pondered this very topic, and concluded several months ago that our anxiety arises from our fears. It seems what he is saying is that anxiety prevents action, due to the fear of the action. I like this post! Thanks 🙂


  3. Holy crap. Linchpin is literally on my desk. A great suggestion. I found this book was a great way to start the day. Read a few pages, do some reflecting, fight the lizard brain resistance.

    It’s funny how the role of children and family can play on the perception of fear and anxiety. I do think it is very important to be a good example to your kids for how to deal with those kinds of decisions and not let either paralyze you.

    Not that I am advocating taking risk, just for risks sake. I do think it is easy to have the reasons (kids, home, job, parents, etc.) become excuses for not shaking things up a bit because there is a high degree of comfort.

    Comfort doesn’t always mean easy, it just means you know exactly what you are going to get. Comfort will keep you in the throws of mediocrity for the rest of your days. Seth talks about the “lizard brain” wanting to stay comfortable. Fight the resistance. Make your life and the lives of those around you epic. It is way too short not to.

    I flipping love that this kind of dialogue is on a running blog. Just awesome.


  4. I encounter this all the time with my training and racing, fear of getting hurt due to overtraining or irregular training, and anxiety over mileage, rest days, speed, etc. It’s a constant balancing act, wanting to push myself but trying to figure out how far I can. I had a race in February that I was underprepared for and hugely anxious about, but I went ahead and ran it, and hurt myself. Ironically, I think the anxiety-fueled last-minute trail workouts I’d been doing leading up to the race contributed to the problem. Even though I was out of commission for two months I don’t really regret it. As someone who has traditionally shied away from risk, the fact that I accomplished the event – the longest I’d ever done and in the gnarliest conditions, and also the most fun – is more important. When I look back on it, I’m going to remember the awesome race, not the physical therapy and couch time that succeeded it.


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