One of the most characteristic features of panic disorder is a history of frequent panic attacks and anxiety associated with fear of a future attack. However, not all individuals who experience panic attacks develop panic disorder.
To assess whether or not an individual has panic disorder, a doctor may consider the following:
The nature of the panic attack.
The panic attacks experienced in the case of panic disorder are usually unrelated to a stressful event or situation. For example, while those with claustrophobia may experience a panic attack when placed within an enclosed elevator, panic disorder describes when someone experiences an attack without such triggers.
A diagnosis of panic disorder is made if a person reports a panic attack followed by at least one month of feeling severely anxious over the prospect of having another attack in the future. This time spent fearing a further attack is often associated with significant changes in a person's behaviour, if their anxiety starts to interfere with routine daily tasks such as shopping or driving, for example.
On visiting the doctor, details of the attacks and their frequency, triggers, onset, duration and severity are evaluated. Any previous history of phobias, anxiety disorder or traumatic life events are also noted. The patient's current daily routines and activities are examined in detail as is any family history of panic disorder or other mental health disorders.
A detailed physical examination to rule out the presence of any other medical conditions such as an overactive thyroid gland is performed.
Finally, a detailed mental health evaluation to check for depression, anxiety disorder or phobias is carried out.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc