Predatory Imminence Theory: Anxiety Isn't Always Negative

Predatory imminence theory claims that fear, expressed as anxiety or panic, also plays a positive role in the life of an individual. That's because it allows them to protect and preserve themselves.
Predatory Imminence Theory: Anxiety Isn't Always Negative

Last update: 09 July, 2022

Predatory imminence theory proposes that anxiety and the circumstances surrounding it aren’t negative but adaptive states. It was put forward by Fanselow and Lester in 1988 and is based on the biological processes that take place in threatening situations.

Currently, the word anxiety is used rather loosely. In fact, it’s often employed to describe any kind of discomfort. Furthermore, it tends to be given a completely negative connotation. However, the theory of predatory imminence indicates that anxiety is a specific state and that it’s often positive.

Predatory imminence theory states that every human being must face various dangers throughout their life. The presence of a threatening factor provokes various sensations and perceptions, including anxiety. This allows them to take the necessary steps to deal with risk effectively. Let’s look at it in more detail.

Fear is natural for the wise, and knowing how to defeat it is brave.”

-Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga-

man with anxiety
Anxiety allows us to identify what we interpret as a threat.

Predatory imminence theory

Predatory imminence theory claims that fear is a behavioral mechanism that’s activated in the presence of a threat. For early man, that threat would’ve been the presence of a predator, such as a lion. Nowadays, there are other risks, such as walking down a dark street in a dangerous neighborhood.

This theory indicates that there are several ‘defense phases’ in the face of a threat. These are activated when certain stimuli appear. They lead to the emergence of defensive behaviors depending on the level of said threat. The intensity and characteristics of defensive behavior change depending on the ‘predatory imminence’. In other words, the probability of suffering damage.

There are three phases of defense in the theory of predatory imminence, which we’ll list below.

1. Defensive phase

As in the other defense phases, the intensity of this stage can be high or low. There are three types of behavior in this stage:

  • Pre-encounter defensive behaviors. They correspond to situations in which the threat, or predatory imminence, is low, but exists.
  • Post-encounter defensive behaviors. They occur when the threat, or the predator, is detected but isn’t immediate or it’s not certain that an attack will occur.
  • Circa-strike defensive behaviors. They occur when post-encounter behaviors fail. Hence, there’s direct contact with the predator and the threat materializes.

2. Manifest responses

These correspond to the materialization of defenses in specific behaviors. They’re as follows:

  • Change of pattern or cautious approach. It corresponds to the response given against the pre-encounter defenses.
  • Immobilization, potentiation of reflexes, or analgesia. The corresponding response to post-encounter defenses.
  • Burst, flight, attack. These are the possible behaviors unleashed as a manifestation of circa-strike defenses.

3. Psychological construct

The other component is the psychological construct. This refers to the affective state that accompanies the perceptions and behavior already described. There are three possible alternatives: anxiety, fear, and panic.

woman with anxiety
Anxiety has physical, psychological, and social consequences.

Predatory imminence

The theory of predatory imminence indicates that the processes described above occur simultaneously in each stage.

  • Pre-encounter defenses trigger a change in the pattern of behavior, or a cautious approach. Anxiety predominates.
  • Post-encounter defenses generate immobility, sharpening of reflexes, or blockage of perception. Fear prevails.
  • Circa-strike defenses cause an emotional outburst, or a flight or attack reaction. Panic reigns.

It’s easier to understand this with an example. In the first case, think of a person walking down a dark alley, in a dangerous place. In the distance, they spot a suspicious figure. They feel anxious and decide to change their route.

In the second case, they don’t see the predator in the distance, but they suddenly appear around a corner and are impossible to avoid. The person is afraid. This either leads to immobility or high alertness.

The third case would be a situation in which the predator, in this case, the suspicious person, takes out a weapon. The person feels panic which leads to a fight, flight, or shock response.

As you can see, anxiety, fear, or panic play a relevant role in regard to self-preservation in all cases. It allows perceiving the threat and displaying behaviors aimed at avoiding or confronting it. In fact, the apparent ‘negative’ feelings play an adaptive role, since they protect the individual from real danger.

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The Main Causes of Anxiety
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The Main Causes of Anxiety

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  • Garrido Muñoz, A. (2021). Mecanismos autonómicos de la modulación de la respuesta cardíaca de defensa.