Do you suspect that you are experiencing the symptoms of panic disorder? Finding out whether or not you have panic disorder begins with a diagnosis. The following describes how panic disorder is diagnosed.
The Evaluation ProcessOnly your doctor or a qualified specialist can diagnose you as having a mental health condition. Professionals who treat panic disorder are trained to make an accurate diagnosis. Although the diagnosis of panic disorder is largely clinical, based on the doctor's interview, he or she may have you complete self-assessment tools or questionnaires that will ask you questions pertaining to your symptoms. This assessment will give your doctor or therapist an idea of the intensity and duration of your symptoms, along with providing other pertinent information for diagnostic purposes.
In the clinical interview, your doctor or therapist will ask more in-depth questions to make an accurate diagnosis. For instance, you may be asked questions regarding your medical history, current symptoms, and recent life changes. Finding out more about you will assist your doctor or therapist in ruling out the possibility of other medical or mental health conditions. The entire diagnostic evaluation process is typically completed within one to two visits.
When determining your diagnosis, your doctor or therapist will decide if you meet the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revision (DSM-IV-TR) is a handbook that contains the diagnostic standards for all mental health conditions. Your doctor or therapist will reference the DSM-IV-TR when determining your diagnoses.
Diagnostic CriteriaAccording to the DSM-IV-TR, to receive a diagnosis of panic disorder, a person must be experiencing spontaneous panic attacks. These attacks typically occur out-of-the-blue and involve a combination of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. Panic attacks often reach a peak within about 10 minutes before gradually subsiding.
As outlined in the DSM-IV-TR, panic attacks are experienced through four or more of the following symptoms:
- Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization or depersonalization
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
Related and Co-Occurring DisordersPeople with panic disorder are often at greater risk for developing an additional mental health disorder. For example, it's been estimated that approximately 50% of those diagnosed with panic disorder will experience one episode of major depressive disorder in their lifetimes. Your doctor or therapist will be able to determine if you are experiencing any additional mental health conditions.
Aside from depression, panic disorder sufferers are also more likely to have a co-occurring anxiety disorder. Common related disorders include social anxiety disorder (SAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Given that these conditions share similar symptoms to panic disorder, it is possible you are actually experiencing one of these separate disorders. Your doctor or therapist will be able to determine if you have any of these related conditions.
Close to one third of those diagnosed with panic disorder will also develop a condition known as agoraphobia. This disorder is common among people with panic disorder, as it involves a fear of having panic attacks in situations from which it would be challenging or embarrassing to flee. This fear often leads to avoidance behaviors in which the person avoids certain situations. Typically, avoidances include crowded areas, different modes of transportation, and open spaces. The feelings of fear associated with this condition can become so intense that a person may become homebound with agoraphobia.
Follow Up and TreatmentConsidering that agoraphobia typically develops within the first year a person experiences spontaneous panic attacks, it is important to begin treatment early on. Once you have received a diagnosis of panic disorder with or without agoraphobia, you will need to follow through with your treatment plan.
The most common treatment options for panic disorder include prescribed medications, psychotherapy, self-help techniques, or a combination of these approaches. Medications for panic disorder can assist in reducing the intensity of panic attacks and feelings of anxiety, and psychotherapy can assist you in building coping skills to manage your condition. Self-care activities, such as relaxation techniques, can help you deal with feelings of stress and anxiety. By getting help, a person with panic disorder can learn to cope with their condition and improve their quality of life.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision. Washington, DC: Author.