What is the relationship between panic and the inability to express emotions?

In patients with panic disorder (PD), the difficulty to identify and manage emotional experience might contribute to the enduring vulnerability to panic attacks. Such a difficulty might reflect a dysfunction of fronto-temporo-limbic circuits.

The present study was designed to test the hypothesis that drug-free patients with PD, as compared with healthy subjects (HS), show a higher prevalence of alexithymia, greater difficulty in emotional stimuli processing and poorer performance on neuropsychological tests exploring the activity of fronto-temporo-limbic circuits.

Alexithymia, general cognitive abilities, focused and sustained attention, working memory, secondary memory, incidental learning, susceptibility to interference from both cognitive and emotional stimuli, and ability to recognize facial emotional expressions were assessed in 32 drug-free patients with PD and 32 HS.

Alexithymia was more frequent in patients with PD than in HS. Patients with PD, as compared to HS, had lower verbal cognitive abilities and more difficulty to inhibit interference from nonverbal stimuli and from panic-related words; they performed better than HS on the test assessing spatial incidental learning. Anxiety, panic symptomatology and verbal cognitive abilities (VIQ) were associated with alexithymia.

Findings are compatible with a dysfunction of frontolimbic circuits, in particular orbitofrontal and cingulate cortices. A reduction in verbal cognitive abilities was also observed, which might suggest reduced abstraction and symbolization in these patients.

Galderisi, S., Mancuso, F., Mucci, A.; Garramone, S.; Zamboli, R.; Maj, M. Alexithymia and Cognitive Dysfunctions in Patients with Panic Disorder. Psychother Psychosom 2008;77:182-188.

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Dr. Silvana Galderisi alfa

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