Because anxiety accompanies so many medical conditions, some serious, it is extremely important for the doctor to uncover any medical problems or medications that might underlie or be masked by an anxiety attack. The doctor will perform a physical examination and ask about the patient’s medical and personal history.
The patient should describe any occurrence of anxiety disorders or depression in the family and mention any other contributing factors, such as excessive caffeine use, recent life changes, or stressful events.
It is very important to be honest with your doctor about all conditions, including excessive drinking, substance abuse, or other psychological or mood states that might contribute to, or result from, the anxiety disorder.
Diagnosing children with an anxiety disorder can be very difficult, since anxiety often results in disruptive behaviors that overlap with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or oppositional disorder. Other conditions with symptoms similar to anxiety disorders include pervasive developmental disorders such as Asperger syndrome, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, and depression. Many children have anxiety disorder and a co-occurring condition, which should be treated along with anxiety.
Other Conditions with Similar Symptoms
People with anxiety disorders are more likely to see a family doctor before a mental health specialist, since their symptoms are often physical. Symptoms can include muscle tension, trembling, twitching, aching, soreness, cold and clammy hands, dry mouth, sweating, nausea or diarrhea, or urinary frequency. Anxiety attacks can mimic or accompany nearly every acute disorder of the heart or lungs, including heart attacks and angina (chest pain). In fact, nearly all individuals with panic disorders are convinced that their symptoms are physical and possibly life-threatening.
Heart Problems. Some patients who enter the emergency room with chest pain, and who have a low-to-moderate risk for a heart attack, are actually suffering from panic attacks. It is often difficult even for specialists to distinguish between heart conditions and a panic attack:
- Women who are having an actual heart attack or acute heart problem are much more likely to be misdiagnosed as having an anxiety attack than are men with similar symptoms.
- Mitral valve prolapse, a common and usually mild heart problem, may have symptoms that are nearly identical to those of panic disorder. The two conditions, in fact, frequently occur together.
Review Date: 01/27/2011
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.