Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Anxiety Disorders

What you need to prove to get Social Security disability benefits for a severe anxiety disorder.

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While many individuals claim they are affected by anxiety or stress, an anxiety disorder is a mental condition in which extreme feelings of worry and fear control your everyday actions. Only when you experience severe symptoms of anxiety that affect your ability to function at work and at home could you be eligible for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA) on account of anxiety. Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include an inability to concentrate, avoidance of certain situations, fear of crowds, or feelings of panic.

To be considered for disability benefits due to an anxiety disorder, Social Security requires medical evidence that you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and that as a result of this condition you have been unable to work for at least 12 months. Based on your current income and work history, you may apply for Social Security Disability (SSD) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Specific Medical Evidence Needed for an Anxiety Disorder

Your doctor or psychologist may have diagnosed you with a general anxiety disorder, a post-traumatic stress disorder (recurring thoughts about a past distressing event), an obsessive-compulsive disorder (finding it necessary to repeatedly perform tasks), a panic disorder (having a significant physical response even when there is no actual danger), or agoraphobia (the fear or avoidance of public places). The SSA will want to see evidence of any psychological testing or evaluations diagnosing you with anxiety, and any treatment notes by your doctor showing that you have been consistently reporting symptoms of anxiety.

Most importantly, you will need to explain what happens as a result of your anxiety. For instance, if you are at work and you have a panic attack, what do you do? Will you leave the job site? Do you lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour? Or, will you suffer in silence but become unable to complete your work tasks that day due to difficulty with memory and concentration? You should try to obtain a medical opinion from your treating doctor regarding your level of anxiety (mild, moderate, or severe), what triggers your anxiety, and the effect of your anxiety disorder on your ability to work. If possible, you could also try to get a statement from your past employer regarding any work absences due to anxiety symptoms.

Qualifying Under a Disability Listing

If you meet the requirements of a disability listing found in Social Security's Listing of Impairments (also known as the “Blue Book”), the SSA will presume you are disabled. Listing 12.06 in the Blue Book covers all anxiety-related mental disorders. To meet this listing, you must show that your symptoms of anxiety limit you very significantly in performing your daily tasks of living; relating to others; and thinking, staying on task, completing assignments in a reasonable amount of time. You must also have a doctor's diagnosis and medical proof of one of the following:

  • recurrent generalized anxiety with multiple symptoms, such as an abnormal level of worry and concern, sweating, feeling faint, dry mouth, muscle tension, and hypervigilance (resulting in such symptoms as difficulty falling asleep or a blank mind)
  • a continuing unreasonable fear that causes you to stay away from a particular object, activity, or situation
  • ongoing unpredictable but frequent panic attacks with feelings of significant worry and a fear that something bad will happen
  • ongoing obsessions or impulses that are a source of severe distress, or
  • ongoing memories of a disturbing experience, which are a source of severe distress.

Determining Your Residual Functional Capacity

It can be tough to meet a disability listing, especially for one of the mental disorders. But if the SSA finds that you don't have the evidence needed to show that your anxiety disorder is severe enough to meet Listing 12.06, then the agency will review the evidence in your file to analyze exactly what limitations you have on your ability to work. For anxiety-related conditions, the SSA will focus on how well you can work with other people, including the public and coworkers, how well you can concentrate on tasks, and how well you can adapt to changes in your environment.

After doing this analysis, the SSA will give you a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) statement explaining what types of work tasks you can perform and how often. If you have been diagnosed with a panic disorder, for example, you will likely have some problems with concentration. Therefore, you might have the following RFC: an inability to do complex tasks but you can perform short and simple tasks that can be learned in 30 days or less, no contact with the general public, and only superficial contact with coworkers and supervisors.

To be granted disability benefits, your mental RFC generally must limit you from working any of the jobs you've in the past fifteen years and from performing any simple unskilled job in the United States.

Using the above example, although the RFC would appear to limit you from doing most jobs, in reality you would likely not be found disabled because this RFC allows you to perform some types of simple unskilled work. But if you can show that your panic attacks occur more than once a week and without warning and are triggered by normal and routine events, then you could argue that you would regularly have difficulty maintaining concentration over a regular 8-hour workday, that your productivity is greatly lessened by your disorder, and that you should be found disabled.

Obviously, being found unable to perform any type of job is a tough standard to meet, but it's possible, especially if you also have other physical or mental impairments. For more on this, see Nolo's article on how the SSA develops your mental RFC.

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