The recent visibility that mental health disorders have experienced in recent times has made the term ‘ anxiety ‘ fashionable . However, it is often associated in all cases with anxiety disorders, and as such it is seen as a symptom of a problem and as something eminently negative.
Therefore, it is important to understand that anxiety is a feeling (or rather, a state) that only when it occurs in a certain way is a symptom of a mental disorder. In fact, as formulated by the theory of predatory imminence, in certain circumstances the state of anxiety can be functional and adaptive.
This theory starts from a biological perspective , and indicates that anxiety is actually an innate mechanism designed to avoid harm.
Specifically, the authors Fanselow and Lester argued that the triggering events of anxiety have varied over time , depending on the dangers that humans as a species have been facing in each era.
Thus, they affirm that it was originally an anticipatory response to the possibility of, for example, being attacked by a predator , which is why this theory is called predatory imminence.
In the same way, today, anxiety would be adaptive when it occurs in anticipation of a situation that can put us at risk, such as driving on dangerous roads or practicing risky sports.
Three stages of anxiety
This makes sense when we consider two effects of anxiety. One is that it encourages us, as far as possible, to abandon the activity or situation in which we find ourselves and to avoid it in the future.
The other is that anxiety activates a series of mechanisms, even at a physiological level, that prepare us for the ‘fight or flight’ response. Thanks to an increase in the production of adrenaline, the senses and reflexes are heightened, phenomena such as paralysis occur and analgesia increases (or what is the same, decreases sensitivity to pain).
This happens in three different stages . The first would be the pre-encounter defense state , with the lowest level of predatory imminence, and it would be activated only in the face of the perception of possible danger, but without it still being present. At this stage, adaptive behaviors of caution and risk avoidance are adopted.
The second is the post-encounter stage , in which the danger has already been perceived but the attack is not safe. At this time, it is normal for the subject to tend to immobilization and wait for it.
The last is the stage close to the attack and is triggered when there is already a contact with the threatening stimulus. It manifests itself in the form of defensive or escape behaviors.
When anxiety is pathological
According to this theory, experiencing anxiety in the face of circumstances that can pose a danger, physical or psychological, has nothing pathological. This qualification is applied instead, when it is not adaptive.
That is, anxiety is only a symptom of a disorder when it is excessive, is triggered by stimuli that do not represent a real danger, causes suffering to the individual or interferes in their normal life.
When this happens, fortunately there are many approaches that can limit this impact on the person’s life and, over time, overcome the disorder; But, for this, it is essential to go to a specialist who can handle each specific case, as with any other health problem.