Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Hermanas Hospitalarias, Villa San Benedetto Menni Hospital, FoRiPsi, Albese con Cassano, Como, Italy.
Currently, panic disorder (PD) is considered a mental disorder based on the assumptions that panic attacks (PAs) are "false alarms" that arise from abnormally sensitive defense systems in the central nervous system and that PD is treated with therapies specifically acting on anxiety or fear mechanisms. This article aims to propose an alternative perspective based on the results of some experimental studies. Our heuristic proposal suggests not only that PD may be a mental disorder but also that patients with PD have real abnormal body functioning, mainly involving cardiorespiratory and balance systems, leading to a decline in global physical fitness. PAs, as well as physical symptoms or discomfort in some environmental situations, may be "real alarms" signaling that the adaptability resources of an organism are insufficient to respond appropriately to some internal or external changes, thus representing the transient conscious awareness of an imbalance in body functioning. The antipanic properties of several modern treatments for PD may include their beneficial effects on body functions. Although anxiety or fear mechanisms are evidently involved in PD, we hypothesize that a reduction of physical fitness is the "primum movens" of PD, while anxiety or fear is induced and sustained by repeated signals of impaired body functioning. We propose considering panic in a broader perspective that offers a central role to the body and to contemplate the possible role of somatic treatments in PD.
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