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What is Anxiety Disorder? How to Diagnose | Testing and Assessment

Individual experiencing anxiety disordersWhat is Anxiety Disorder?

Consistent, life-limiting worry, fear, or obsession with the future might indicate an anxiety disorder. There are several causes of anxiety and many different types of anxiety disorders. Feeling afraid or worried occasionally is normal, but if it becomes a perpetual state of existence, it could indicate a larger problem with anxiety.

It is important to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment for an anxiety disorder as soon as symptoms are noticed because the emotional disruption a person experiences can lead to other mental health problems, including substance abuse or addiction.

Types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD) or social phobia
  • Specific phobias, like arachnophobia

Symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Feeling apprehension or dread
  • Being easily startled
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Pounding heart or racing pulse
  • Upset stomach
  • Sweating, shaking, or trembling
  • Insomnia, fatigue, or headaches

Related Reading: Substance Abuse & Anxiety

The general steps to diagnosing an anxiety disorder are outlined below.

Step 1: Find a mental health professional.

Finding the right psychologist for therapy as well as a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication can take some time. It’s important to locate someone with a personality and treatment philosophy that fits with your needs, and this can take some research. In some instances, a primary physician can write a referral, or an insurance company can help you find a professional that is in your insurance network.

Step 2: Undergo a psychological evaluation.

Once a therapy appointment is scheduled, the therapist will ask some general intake questions. These questions will cover your experience of symptoms, which can help to indicate the level of anxiety as well as the specific type of anxiety disorder present. This also helps to eliminate the possibility of other mental health concerns, like post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can manifest anxiety symptoms.

Step 3: Get a physical exam.

Behavioral and emotional symptoms can indicate an underlying physical condition that needs to be treated differently than a mood disorder. This is called a differential diagnosis, and anxiety disorders have the most differential diagnoses of any mood disorder. For example, substances like caffeine or illicit drugs can cause anxiety-like symptoms. Hormonal fluctuations from pregnancy or an underlying hormonal problem can manifest as mood changes or persistent worry. Other psychiatric disorders can begin with symptoms similar to an anxiety disorder.

Other physical conditions that manifest as anxiety

  • Acute gastritis
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Heart problems
  • Delirium tremens
  • Esophageal spasm
  • Hypercalcemia
  • Some types of brain swelling (encephalopathy)
  • Insomnia
  • Lyme disease
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Pregnancy

A physician will use a general physical, bloodwork, and even brain or body scans to make sure all potential underlying physical issues are ruled out.
Therapist taking notes on patient symptoms of anxiety disorders

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Step 4: Take diagnostic psychological tests.

Once underlying physical problems have been ruled out, the therapist may give specific psychological scales or exams to uncover more details about the anxiety disorder. The information gathered can support a more specific diagnosis. Some of these tests include Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale, the Hamilton Anxiety Scale, the Beck Anxiety Inventory, the Social Phobia Inventory, the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale, or the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale.

Step 5: Try medications, if deemed appropriate.

The best method for treating anxiety disorders is therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is most often used to understand the causes of anxiety and to change personal reactions to events, people, or environments that trigger anxiety. However, some medications may be prescribed, especially to reduce panic on a short-term basis. Sometimes, a psychiatrist may prescribe benzodiazepines to treat panic attacks on an as-needed basis or to reduce panic immediately. These medications are meant only for short-term use. Long-term treatment may involve an anti-anxiety medication like buspirone or some types of antidepressants. These prescriptions are designed for long-term mood stabilization.

If these medications do not work as intended, it could be an indication that the mental health condition is not an anxiety disorder or that it is a different type of anxiety disorder. The psychologist and psychiatrist will reevaluate their approach to better treat the condition.