How Panic Disorder Is Diagnosed

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Panic disorder causes recurrent and unexpected panic attacks or episodes of intense fear. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider right away if you are experiencing panic attacks, so you can receive the right diagnosis. Panic attacks can indicate you have panic disorder or another psychiatric or medical condition.

Worried woman

fizkes / Getty Images

Professional Screenings

Your primary care doctor may do the screening for panic disorder or refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in these types of conditions.

Your diagnosis process may include:

  • Providing your medical history and current medications you are taking
  • Having a complete physical exam 
  • Talking about your symptoms and concerns 
  • Having a psychiatric assessment

DSM-5 Criteria 

The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5) has specific criteria for diagnosing a panic disorder. Your healthcare provider will use the DSM-5 criteria during the screening process.

The DSM-5 criteria for panic disorder include:

  • Unexpected and recurrent panic attacks
  • At least one of the panic attacks is followed by one month or more of worrying about having another attack and changing your behavior to avoid having an attack 
  • Another health condition, medications, and other substances are not causing your panic attacks 
  • Another mental health disorder is not causing your panic attacks 

Severity Measure for Panic Disorder

Your healthcare provider may also use the Severity Measure for Panic Disorder test for adults as part of the assessment. The test is a series of questions concerning your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about panic attacks during the last seven days.

The questions cover if you have: 

  • Felt moments of sudden fear
  • Were worried or anxious about having another panic attack
  • Had thoughts of bad things happening to you because of panic attacks
  • Had symptoms of a panic attack, such as a racing heart, sweating, breathing problems, or shakiness
  • Felt tense or on edge and had sleep problems
  • Avoided situations because of the fear of having another panic attack
  • Left situations early to avoid having panic attacks
  • Thought about, spent time preparing for, or procrastinated about situations that may cause panic attacks
  • Used distractions to avoid thinking about panic attacks
  • Needed help to deal with panic attacks  

You respond to the 10 questions based on how frequently you experience each symptom. The answers for how often you have a feeling, thought, or behavior and their associated points are:

  • Never (0) 
  • Occasionally (1)  
  • Half of the time (2)  
  • Most of the time (3)  
  • All of the time (4)  

Your healthcare provider will find the total score by adding up all the points. The total raw score can range from 0 to 40. A higher score means the panic disorder is more severe.

You may also have to take this test in the future after the diagnosis process is over, so your healthcare provider can evaluate how your panic disorder is progressing and if treatment is helping.

Labs and Tests

Your healthcare provider may order lab tests to rule out other medical problems that may cause symptoms similar to panic disorder. For example, some thyroid and heart conditions may feel similar to a panic attack.

You may have:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Imaging tests 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)

Self/At-Home Testing

You can find many self-screening tests online for panic attacks and panic disorder. Although it is easy to take these assessments at home, they are not a substitute for an official diagnosis from a healthcare provider.  

An online test cannot give you a proper diagnosis, so you still need to see a practitioner. In addition, some tests may not be accurate and could give you incorrect results. You should not rely on a self-screening test alone to see if you have a mental health condition.

A Word From Verywell

If you have recurrent panic attacks, it is important to see a healthcare provider right away. Although they can be a sign of panic disorder, the symptoms may be similar to other health problems that require treatment. A healthcare professional can determine if you have panic disorder or another medical condition.

You may need additional tests to find the cause of your symptoms. It is important to be patient during the diagnosis process because finding the reason for your symptoms can take time. 

Receiving the right diagnosis is the first step toward getting the care and treatment you need. Talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns and get a second opinion if necessary. 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

  2. Locke AB, Kirst N, Shultz CG. Diagnosis and management of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults. Am Fam Physician. 91(9):617-624.

  3. MedlinePlus. Panic disorder test.

  4. Elkins RM, Pincus DB, Comer JS. A psychometric evaluation of the panic disorder severity scale for children and adolescents. Psychol Assess. 26(2):609-618. doi:10.1037/a0035283

By Lana Bandoim
Lana Bandoim is a science writer and editor with more than a decade of experience covering complex health topics.