In today’s society, there is a tendency to use the term anxiety to describe a negative state, an unpleasant feeling, which affects an individual’s life and is not adaptive.
We are used to hearing about anxiety as a negative state, which affects a person’s functionality and does not let them lead a normal life. In psychological disorders diagnostic manuals such as DSM 5 or ICD 10, anxiety appears as a group of disorders related to different causes that cause anxiety.
But … Is the feeling of anxiety still inappropriate? Does it always have a negative impact, being able to develop a disorder? In this article, we will present the theory of predatory imminencea, which describes a state of anxiety, presented in certain circumstances, which may be functional for the individual, thus avoiding negative consequences.
What is the Predatory Impending Theory?
As we pointed out above, we tend to link anxiety to a negative state, which we want to avoid, which does nothing for good and only affects our functionality by creating discomfort.
Fanselow and Lester, with the Predatory Impending Theory, presented a new view of anxiety, implying and demonstrating that it can sometimes become functional for the individual, thus avoiding further damage.
This theory is presented from a biological point of view; the authors describe an evolution of individuals through history (phylogenetics), which allows them to adapt to the different dangers that arise according to the way of life, according to the context. They evoke different sensations such as fear, intuition, the perception of danger or the above-mentioned anxiety, which can help the person or even prevent death.
The dangers we face today as a society have varied from those that once faced.. For example, in prehistoric times we were more likely to die from a lion attack, whereas today with the change in lifestyle we are more likely to be dragged into the streets. Therefore, for anxiety to be adaptive, it must adapt over time and vary depending on the dangers we are most likely to encounter.
Therefore, given the contribution of Fanselow and Lester, anxiety could sometimes be seen as a marker of future danger, thus allowing the individual to take action and avoid bigger problems. Anxiety acts as a defensive behavior, and it is one of the most effective, which keeps us alert to possible dangers in the future.
Considering the adaptive function that anxiety can have depending on the occasion, it is not only necessary to try to make it disappear, to eliminate it, but the right thing to do would be to look at what this feeling of anxiety signals, because it appears and thus to be able to act according to future events which could occur.
It would not be functional not to show anxiety in situations where our lives may be at risk. For example, if we want to cross a street, it won’t be adaptive to cross without looking if we know it can cause us to run over. Therefore, in this situation, the anxiety of a possible collision would alert us to the future danger of being run over, causing us to stop and watch if any cars are coming to avoid an accident.
Continuum of Predatory Impending
The Continuum of Impending Predatory was described by Fanselow and Lester as the prey’s perception of the likelihood of being eaten by a predator. In other words, predatory imminence is directly correlated with the feeling of danger, for example, a greater predatory imminence would lead to a greater feeling of danger of being hunted by the predator.
The authors divide the continuum into phases, observed with the performance of laboratory studies with rats, results which have been shown to be extrapolated to situations in the natural environment.
The continuum will present the predatory imminence, the perceived threat level, dimensionally. That is to say at least to the most perceived danger. In the axis of predatory imminence, from low to high, three types of defense phases or defense stages will be presented., which will activate in the face of certain environmental stimuli, showing a clear defensive behavior linked to the perceived danger situation. Finally, it also refers to a psychological construction, linked in the same way to each stage of the defense.
At the lowest level of predatory impending, the change in eating habits and the cautious approach, related to the pre-encounter defense stage, where the psychological construct or current state is anxiety or worry .
With a higher degree of predatory imminence, we will move on to post-encounter defense, with overt behaviors such as immobilization, improved reflexes, and analgesia (no sensation of pain), at this stage of defense, the psychological state indicated is fear.
Finally, in the last stage of defense, where the predatory imminence, the feeling of danger is higher, the defense presented would be the circa-strike, linked to the state of panic, with obvious behaviors such as bursts of activity, behaviors of escape and attack.
Obvious behaviors according to the level of predatory imminence
At the lowest level of predatory imminence, in the pre-founded state of defense, as the name suggests, the behavior would be activated in the face of the perception of possible danger., that is to say in the face of an attack situation that is not yet present. The sensation will be anxiety, with adaptive behaviors of careful action, trying to reduce risk factors and thus protect their lives.
Next, in the post-encounter stage, with a moderate sense of threat, overt behavior will tend to immobilize, to freeze. A state of fear will be displayed upon detection of the threat, although at this point the attack is not yet immediate or safe.
In the phase of upper predatory imminence, where the situation of danger is higher, the stage of defense will be called, as we have already argued, defense circa strike. In this last phase, in which there is already direct contact with the threatening stimulus, the overt defensive behavior is already more active., showing highly variable behaviors, such as biting, jumping, or flight behaviors.
As we have pointed out, in the pre-encounter defense phase, where the feeling of threat or danger is not so high, there is more flexibility in overt behaviors, mainly acting through trial and error. On the other hand, when the danger is already present, in the defense phase towards the strike, with a higher level of predatory imminence, it will no longer be a question of trial and error, but of preprogrammed behaviors, which are known to have a better result. effective in the face of current danger.
Innate mechanism of action
Taking into account the information presented in the previous section, we will say that in the situation of maximum perception of danger, where there is already direct contact with the threatening stimulus, the subject’s cerebral mechanisms must be activated, which instinctively select the most adaptive innate defensive response given the situation.; it will not be functional to waste time with trial and error testing.
Classical or Pavlovian conditioning learning has been shown to help select the most appropriate type of innate response to certain sets of environmental stimuli.
Variables that influence the predatory imminence
It has been verified, with the observation of animals in nature, that there are different variables that influence the feeling of predatory imminence; it is multifaceted, just like the spatial distance to the threat of the stimulus, the time, the identity of the threat, etc. But it was obtained that the psychological perception of imminent danger is one of the variables that most influences the level of predatory imminence, sense of danger.
Therefore, with this model, the authors would show that the psychological constructions of anxiety, fear and panic (which are generally conceived as unpleasant sensations), on certain occasions, where the danger is likely to appear in the imminent future or are already present, they would be useful to protect the individual and thus survive. They act as threat or danger markers by activating different appropriate behaviors in the subject, allowing a good adaptation to the situation.
These defense mechanisms initially involve a lower level of threat, more flexible behaviors, becoming more predetermined and innate as the level of perceived danger in the situation increases, so that the most effective behavior is executed faster, protecting the person. topic.
By answering the questions asked in the introduction, after knowing the questions raised in the theory of imminent predator, anxiety is not always inappropriate or has a negative impact on all occasions on the individual. The authors found that in certain situations where the possibility of an attack is real, feeling anxious, having a sense of danger or threat is functional because it puts us on alert and allows us to act, avoid or to be prepared for danger.
- Fanselow, M. and Lester, L. (1988) A functional behavioral approach to behavior with aversive motivation: Predatory imminence as a determinant of the topography of defensive behavior. Evolution and learning. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.
- Fanselow, M. (2018) The role of learning in impending threats and defensive behavior. Current opinion in behavioral sciences.
- Garrido, A. (2020) Automatic mechanisms modulating the cardiac defense response. Doctoral program in psychology. University of Granada.