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Masi, F.D. (2004). The psychodynamic of panic attacks: A useful integration of psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 85(2):311-336.

(2004). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 85(2):311-336

The psychodynamic of panic attacks: A useful integration of psychoanalysis and neuroscience Language Translation

Franco De Masi

This article tries to explain, in the light of some neuroscientific and psychoanalytical considerations, the repetitive pattern of panic attacks. Freud considered the panic attack as an ‘actual neurosis’ not involving any conflictualprocess. Recent neuroscientific findings indicate that psychosomatic reactions, set off by a danger situation, depend on the primitive circuit of fear (including the amygdala) characterised by its speed, but lack accurate responses and may also be activated by harmless stimuli perceived erroneously as dangerous. The traumatic terror is stored in implicit memory and may be set off by a conditioned stimulus linked to a previous danger situation. In the panic attack, the traumatic event is created by the imagination and this construction (a micro-delusion), built in loneliness and anxiety, has the same power as the real trauma. A mutual psychosomatic short-circuit between body and psyche, in which terror reinforces the somatic reactions and the psychic construction, is established. Therefore, it is important to highlight these constructions in order to analyse and transform them. In the second part of the article the author reviews the main psychoanalytical theories about panic attacks, stressing how, in his opinion, panic attack is a consequence of the breakdown of the defence organisation at various levels and may appear during periods of life crisis. Two patients suffering from a deficit of personal identity are presented. The various organisations and the different levels (biological, neuroscientific, associative, traumatic) of the panic attack determine different kinds of therapeutic approaches (pharmacological, cognitive and psychoanalytical). While the psychopharmacological treatment is aimed at reducing the neurovegetative reaction and the cognitive method is attempting to correct the associative and perceptive processes of fear signals, psychoanalytical therapy represents both a specific means to free patients from panic attacks as well as an indispensable route for their emotional growth.

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