The contrast between anxiety, fear, and fright were first explored by renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1917. These were, by his definition, reactions to our sense of danger.
"Well, how convenient that is!" I thought. There are three stages of reactions to danger, and I always want to juxtapose popular western concepts with the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) principles of Jing (the physical body), Qi (the emotional body), and Shen (the spiritual body). In thinking about it, I can see that Jing and Anxiety, Qi and Fear, Shen and Fright can be another great way of defining our emotional responses to dangerous thoughts and situations.
Anxiety is the first stage. Freud considered anxiety to be the undefined, more general state of being, without a particular subject in mind. So think about the way your body feels when you walk into a particular setting or situation. Perhaps your hands get clammy, your breathing either stops or is too fast, you either sweat with extreme heat or you freeze as if blood was drained from your body. Anxiety is a very physical (Jing) response to an undefined danger. While anxiety has a lot of levels, many people who are feeling anxiety can still perhaps soldier on, receiving reprieve either through space (creating distance from the danger) or time (allowing moments of danger to pass).
Once the anxiety pinpoints to a particular subject, however, it becomes fear. Fear requires a picture in your mind, and once you delineate structure, color, sounds, smells, actions, forms to the danger, then our emotional body (Qi) is compromised. Then this reaction to perceived danger starts to affect our movements, decisions, relationships, etc. Take for example, infidelity. When you become suspicious of your partner's loyalty, you can almost always imagine them cheating; there is a movie that plays out in your mind that feeds the fire of your fear. In my Neurolinguistic Coaching practice, one of the most effective ways clients battle fear is by blurring these definitive lines. The Pixar movie "Inside Out" has a segment in which they explain this process.
It is still possible to live out your days "normally" while feeling anxious or fearful. But once this reaction to danger is elevated from fear to fright, then it has moved deeper into your psyche, affecting your spirit (shen). Once you are frightened, paralysis starts to happen, and moving about in your day becomes almost unbearable. In addition to affecting your work or personal relationships, you may not be able to eat, sleep, or even get out of your home. Sometimes, your home may even pose a threat. This level of reaction almost always results in PTSD, and I would suggest seeking professional counseling in this type of situation. This requires a deeper, more clinical level of unpacking, and perhaps continued guidance from a trusted practitioner.
One last thing before we wrap up. The emotion of fear in TCM is regulated by the kidneys. So in times when you sense a level of danger, and actually always, make sure you stay hydrated, take yourself out of situations of chaos, and meditate, visualizing a bright blue light entering all your pores on the inhale, and concentrating a flash of blue light on your kidneys. And remember, a healthy dose of fear invites a healthy practice of caution. Beyond that, you might be building yourself a life-sized haunted house in your psyche.