The Theory of Predatory Imminence: what it is and what it says about anxiety.
A brief summary of Fanselow and Lester's Predatory Imminence Theory.
In today's society there is a tendency to use the term anxiety to describe a negative state, an unpleasant feeling, which has an impact on the individual's life and is not adaptive.
We are used to hearing about anxiety as a negative state, which affects the functionality of the person, not allowing him/her to lead a normal life. In the diagnostic manuals of psychological disorders such as DSM 5 or ICD 10, anxiety appears as a group of disorders related to different causes that provoke anxiety.
But... Is the feeling of anxiety always maladaptive and does it always have a negative impact and can lead to the development of a disorder? In this article we will present the predatory imminence theory.a, which describes a state of anxiety, presented in certain circumstances, that can be functional for the individual, thus avoiding negative consequences.
What is the Theory of Predatory Imminence?
As we have already pointed out above, we tend to link anxiety with a negative state, which we want to avoid, that does not contribute anything good and only affects our functionality by creating discomfort.
Fanselow and Lester, with their theory of predatory imminence, presented a new vision of anxiety, understanding and demonstrating that anxiety is a negative state.They showed that anxiety can sometimes be functional for the individual, preventing further damage.
This theory is presented from a Biological perspective; the authors describe an evolution of individuals throughout history (phylogenetic), which allows them to adapt to the different dangers that have been presented according to the way of life, according to the context. They mention different sensations such as fear, intuition, perception of danger or the aforementioned anxiety, which can help the person, and even avoid death.
The dangers that are presented to us today as a society have changed with respect to those that were presented in earlier times.. For example, in prehistoric times we were more likely to die from a lion attack, whereas nowadays, with the change in our way of life, we are more likely to be mugged in the street. Therefore, for anxiety to be adaptive, it has to adapt over time and varies according to the dangers we are more likely to encounter.
Therefore, taking into account the contribution of Fanselow and Lester, anxiety could be seen, on some occasions, as a marker of future danger, thus allowing the individual to act and avoid major problems. Anxiety acts as a defensive behavior, being one of the most effective, which keeps us alert of possible dangers in the future.
Given the adaptive function that anxiety can have on certain occasions, we should not simply try to make it go away, eliminate it, but rather the suitable thing would be to fix us what is signaling this sensation of anxietybecause it appears and thus to be able to act according to the future events that can happen.
It would not be functional not to show anxiety in situations where our life can be threatened. For example, if we want to cross a street, it will not be adaptive to cross without looking if we know that this can lead to being run over. Therefore, in this situation, the anxiety of a possible run over would alert us of the future danger of being run over, causing us to stop and check if cars are coming to avoid suffering an accident.
Continuum of predatory imminence
The continuum of predatory imminence was described by Fanselow and Lester as the prey's perception of the probability of being consumed by a predator.. In other words, predatory imminence correlates directly with the sense of danger, i.e., greater predatory imminence would lead to a greater sense of danger of being hunted by the predator.
The authors divide the continuum into phases, observed in laboratory studies with rats, results that have been shown to be extrapolated to situations in the natural environment.
The continuum will present the predatory imminence, perceived threat level, in a dimensional manner. That is, from least to most perceived danger. On the axis of predatory imminence, from low to high, there will be three types of defense phases or defense stagewhich will be activated in the face of certain environmental stimuli, showing an overt defense behavior related to the perceived danger situation. Finally, reference is also made to a psychological construct, linked in the same way to each stage of defense.
At the lowest level of predatory imminence, changes in eating pattern and cautious approach, linked to the pre-encounter defense stage, where the psychological construct or state present is anxiety or worry, will be presented as changes in manifest responses.
With a higher degree of predatory imminence, we will pass to the post-encounter defense, with manifest behaviors such as immobilization, enhancement of reflexes and analgesia (no sensation of pain), in this stage of defense, the psychological state shown is fear.
Finally, in the last stage of defense, where the predatory imminence, the sensation of danger is higher, the defense presented would be the circa-circumstances.In this stage, the defense presented would be the circa-strike, related to the state of panic, with manifest behaviors as outburst of activities, escape behavior and attack.
Manifest behaviors according to the level of predatory imminence.
In the lowest level of predatory imminence, in the state of pre-encounter defense, as the name indicates to us, the behavior would be activated before the perception of possible dangeri.e. in the face of an attack situation not yet present. The feeling will be one of anxiety, with adaptive behaviors of cautious action, trying to reduce the risk factors and thus protect their lives.
Subsequently, in the post-encounter stage, with a feeling of moderate threat, the behavior manifested will tend to immobilization, to stay frozen.to freeze. A state of fear will be shown upon detection of the threat, although at this point the attack is not yet immediate or certain.
In the phase of higher predatory imminence, where the danger situation is higher, the defense stage will be called, as we have already mentioned, circa strike defense. In this last phase, in which there is already a direct contact with the threatening stimulus, the overt defense behavior is already more active, showing very variable behaviors, as we have already mentioned.The defense behavior is more active, showing very variable behaviors, such as biting, jumping or escape behaviors.
As we have pointed out, in the pre-encounter defense phase, where the sensation of threat or danger is not so high, there is more flexibility in overt behaviors, acting mostly by trial and error. On the other hand, when the danger is already present, in the circa strike defense phase, with a higher level of predatory imminence, we will no longer act by trial and error, but we will perform preprogrammed behaviors, which are known to have a more effective result in the face of the present danger.
Innate mechanism of action
Given 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, it will be necessary to activate the subject's brain mechanisms, which instinctively select the innate defensive response that is most adaptive to the situation.It will not be functional to waste time with trial-and-error tests.
It has been shown that learning by classical or Pavlovian conditioning can help to select which kind of innate response is the most appropriate in the face of certain sets of environmental stimuli.
Variables influencing predatory imminence
It has been proven, with the observation of animals in nature, that there are different variables that influence the feeling of predatory imminence; it is multifaceted, as could be the spatial distance to the threatening stimulus, time, identity of the threat, etc. But it has been obtained that the psychological perception of the imminence of danger is one of the variables that has the greatest influence on the level of predatory imminence.the sense of danger.
Therefore, with this model the authors would demonstrate that the psychological constructs of anxiety, fear and panic (which are generally conceived as unpleasant sensations), on certain occasions, where danger is likely to appear in the imminent future or is already present, would be useful to protect the individual and thus survive. They act as markers of threat or danger, activating different appropriate behaviors in the subject.They act as markers of threat or danger by activating different appropriate behaviors in the subject, allowing him/her a good adaptation to the situation.
These defense mechanisms initially involve more flexible behaviors at a lower level of threat, becoming more predetermined and innate as the level of perceived danger in the situation increases, so that the most effective behavior is executed more quickly, protecting the subject.
In response to the questions posed in the introduction, after learning about the issues raised in the theory of predatory imminence, anxiety is not always maladaptive nor does it always have a negative impact on the individual. The authors have found that in certain situations where the possibility of an attack is real, feeling anxious, having a sense of danger or threat is functional, as it alerts us and allows us to act, avoiding or being prepared for the danger.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)