Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Anxiety Disorders

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 everyday actions. Only when you experience severe symptoms of anxiety that affect your ability to function at work and at home can you be eligible for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include an inability to concentrate, avoidance of certain situations, fear of crowds, or feelings of panic. Many people experience an abnormal level of worry and concern, sweating, feeling faint, dry mouth, muscle tension, and hypervigilance.

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, the SSA will presume you are disabled. Listing 12.06 covers all anxiety-related mental disorders. This listing was updated significantly in January of 2017.

To meet this listing, you must have a doctor's diagnosis of anxiety characterized by three or more of the following:

• difficulty concentrating

• restlessness

• irritability

• muscle tension

• sleep disturbance, and/or

• being easily tired.

In addition to having at least three of the above characteristics you must show that it affects your ability to function normally. Most people must have an extreme problem in one of the following areas, or a "marked” (seriously limiting) problem in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (the ability to understand instructions, learn new things, and use judgment in decisions)
  • interacting with others (the ability to use socially appropriate behaviors)
  • concentrating or maintaining pace in performing tasks (the ability to complete tasks), and/or
  • adapting to change or taking care of oneself (having practical personal skills and controlling behavior).
A different standard applies to those who have been living in a highly structured or protected situation or have been undergoing intense therapy or psychosocial support that has diminished the symptoms of their anxiety disorder. Social Security's theory is that, in these situations, a person's functional abilities would probably appear better than would be the case in real-life situations where the stress and demands on them would be greater. If your disorder has been medically documented as serious and persistent over a period of at least two years and you can show that you have been living in a highly structured setting or receiving ongoing medical treatment, you can qualify for disability if you can show that you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or to demands that are not already part of your daily life.

Determining Your Residual Functional Capacity

If the SSA finds that your anxiety disorder is not severe enough to meet listing 12.06, the agency will review the evidence in your file to analyze exactly what limitations you have on your ability to work. The SSA will then give you a "mental residual functional capacity" (MRFC, or mental 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. 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 your RFC would appear to limit you from doing most jobs, in reality you would likely not be found disabled because the SSA would say that this RFC allows you to perform some types of simple unskilled work. On appeal, you could argue that your panic attacks are so frequent that you would regularly have difficulty maintaining concentration over a regular 8-hour workday and that your productivity would be greatly lessened by your disorder. If the SSA agrees, you should be granted benefits. For more information on MRFCs, see Nolo's article on how the SSA develops your mental RFC.

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