Getting Disability Benefits for Panic Disorder

If you suffer from panic attacks, your medical records must show how your ability to function normally is severely limited.

Individuals who suffer from panic attacks that affect their ability to function normally at work or home are sometimes eligible to receive Social Security Disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Panic Attack Overview

A panic attack is a sudden intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions despite the lack of any real danger. Individuals can feel as though they have no control of their body; some panic attacks can mimic heart attacks.

Symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • racing heart
  • a sense of impending doom or serious danger
  • fear of loss of control or death
  • sweating and shaking
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilating
  • chest pain or headache, and
  • dizziness or feeling you are going to faint.

While it is not uncommon for individuals to have a panic attack or two in their lifetime, those who have panic attacks repeatedly may have a condition called a panic disorder.

How Panic Disorder Can Affect Your Ability to Work

If panic attacks or panic disorders go untreated, they can lead to severe complications including:

  • the development of phobias, including fear of leaving your home (agoraphobia) or performing certain tasks
  • avoidance of social situations
  • problems at work in dealing with supervisors and/or the public
  • depression
  • increased risk of suicide, and
  • substance abuse, including alcohol.

When individuals are having panic attacks, they have limited functional abilities in all areas. The ability to function at work during a panic attack is minimal, if at all. And even when a panic attack is not happening, the challenge with panic attacks is that they leave individuals in constant fear of the occurrence of another attack. This constant fear can affect an individual’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks or to get along with others in the work place. These mental impairments could affect an individual’s ability to work at virtually any job.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits

There is a specific listing in Social Security's list of impairments covers anxiety disorders, including panic disorder. You can "meet" Listing 12.06 if you have been diagnosed with panic disorder (or agoraphobia) and you experience one of the following:

  • panic attacks followed by a persistent worry about the consequences of having future panic attacks, and/or
  • increased fear or anxiety about being in at least two different situations (for example, being in a public place, being in a crowded area, taking the bus, waiting in line, or being outside of your home).

You must also be able to show that you have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked" limitation in two or more of the following areas:

  • interacting with others (using socially appropriate behaviors)
  • adapting to change or managing oneself (regulating your emotions and controlling your behavior)
  • concentrating on and finishing tasks (being able to complete tasks), and/or
  • understanding and remembering information (being able to understand instructions and remember and learn new things).

To meet this listing, it's essential that you provide medical evidence from a psychiatrist or psychologist that fully shows the extent of your panic attacks. Specifically, Social Security likes to see at least one full description of a typical panic attack, including the nature, frequency, and duration of panic attacks, any possible causes for the panic attacks (like external stresses or reoccurring panic attacks when at a certain place), and the effects the panic attack has on your ability to function.

Medical care providers who have witnessed one of your panic attacks should include in their records how your description of the panic attack matched what they saw, and all sources from which they got information about your panic attacks (self-reported, from family members, and so on). If your doctor has never seen you experiencing a panic attack, you can have another who has observed it, such as a spouse or family member, provide a description of what they saw.

In addition, your medical records should include your doctor or therapist's opinion on your ability to:

  • sustain a routine without special supervision
  • avoid excessive absences from work (more than two days per month)
  • make simple work-related decisions
  • interact appropriately with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public
  • be on time to work and avoid taking unscheduled breaks from the job, and
  • maintain attention and concentration.

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