Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders

Fear and anxiety are an important part of the human emotional repertoire – these, along with the accompanying burst of energy that comes during high stress situations, enable people to react quickly and appropriately to threats or danger, and also enables them to strive for challenging goals.  It is when such emotional and physical states are disproportionate to environmental situations, excessive, prolonged, or unexpected, that it becomes irrational and paralyzing.  With no external threat perceived, for instance, the energy has nowhere to go, and all that we have is a person suffering from what feels more like an anxiety or a panic attack.  

But even anxiety or panic attacks do not automatically constitute an Anxiety Disorder.  Most individuals are estimated to suffer from some form of anxiety or panic attack at some point in their lives.  Even if the anxiety or panic you are feeling seems excessive, it might have been brought on by other factors such as a stressful life change, excessive caffeine use, lack of sleep, or other contributory factors.  Again, this does not automatically mean that you have an Anxiety Disorder.

Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders should be conducted by a medical professional.  But because there is no specific causative agent or biological marker that has been identified as a sure sign of an Anxiety Disorder, a diagnosis for Anxiety Disorder is clinical rather than laboratory, and based on findings resulting from one or more of the following:

  • A complete physical examination, including blood, urine or other tests that could rule out other possible medical conditions
  • Complete personal and family medical history
  • Interviews and diagnostic tests such as self-assessment questionnaires

These findings are used to rule out other possible causes of the signs and symptoms you are experiencing, because there are other medical conditions that yield the same symptoms as an Anxiety Disorder.  Being able to thus identify which is the actual cause for your symptoms can help in identifying the most appropriate treatment methods. 

Some of the possible medical conditions that your doctor should rule out before arriving at a diagnosis of Anxiety Disorder include: 

  • Heart Problems including a heart attack or a mitral valve prolapse
  • Asthma
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Recurrent pulmonary emboli
  • Adrenal gland tumors
  • Angina
  • Tachycardia
  • Menopause

Needless to say, other contributory factors should also be ruled out, so it is advisable for you to be completely honest with your doctor about any possible history you may have in using alcohol, drugs, medication, or specific stressful events or situations you may have experienced, or are experiencing.

Once other possible medical conditions are ruled out, your doctor will then refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses.  They will continue your examination using interviews and various assessment tools, including an evaluation of the severity, degree, and intensity of the symptoms you are experiencing, including their own observation of your behavior and attitude.  All these enable them to identify whether you are in fact suffering from an Anxiety Disorder, and which type. 

In general, however, and based on the overall results of your evaluation, it is when the symptoms you are feeling have been present for at least six months, are disproportional to your situation, and have effectively diminished your ability to function normally, then it is a very likely that you are suffering from some form of Anxiety Disorder.  The actual diagnosis is mainly based on differential diagnostic criteria which differs for each type of Anxiety Disorder. 

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