Getting Disability Benefits for Panic Disorder

You might qualify for Social Security disability benefits if your panic attacks occur frequently and last long enough to keep you from working.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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).

Is Panic Disorder a Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that panic disorders can pose a significant barrier to employment. If you have frequent, severe panic attacks that interfere with your ability to work full-time for at least twelve months, you might qualify for disability benefits.

A panic attack is a sudden intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions despite the lack of any real danger. During a panic attack, you might feel as though you don't have any control over your body. Some panic attacks can feel like you're having a heart attack.

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.

Many people experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime. But if you're experiencing repeated panic attacks, you might be diagnosed with a condition called a panic disorder.

How Panic Disorder Can Affect Your Ability to Work

Some people are able to manage their panic disorder with medication, breathing exercises, or self-soothing behavior. But other people can have more difficulty getting their panic attacks under control. If your panic attacks go untreated, your daily routine can be affected in the following ways:

  • development of phobias, such as being afraid to leave your home (agoraphobia)
  • avoidance of social situations
  • problems at work when dealing with supervisors and/or the public
  • depression
  • increased risk of suicide, and
  • substance abuse, including alcohol use.

During a panic attack, you're likely to have very limited functional abilities. If you're feeling paralyzed with fear, doing any kind of work can seem impossible. Even when you're not actively experiencing a panic attack, your mind might be preoccupied worrying about when another panic attack might occur. Such ongoing anxiety can affect your ability to concentrate, complete tasks, or get along with others in the workplace. If your mental impairments are significant enough, they could affect your ability to work at any job.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits for Panic Disorder

You can get disability benefits for panic attacks if you can show that your panic disorder is severe enough to meet a listed impairment, or if your panic disorder prevents you from working at any job.

Getting Disability for Panic Attacks by Meeting the Listing for Anxiety

Anxiety and panic disorders are included in Social Security's Listing of Impairments that the agency considers automatically disabling in certain circumstances. You can be found disabled by "meeting" listing 12.06 if you've been diagnosed with panic disorder or agoraphobia and you experience one or both of the following:

  • panic attacks followed by a persistent worry about the consequences of having future panic attacks, and
  • disproportionate (stronger than is warranted) 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" (debilitating) limitation in one, or a "marked" (intense, but not debilitating) limitation in two, of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, and applying information (such as following directions)
  • interacting with others using socially appropriate behaviors
  • concentrating on and finishing tasks, and
  • adapting to change or managing oneself (like maintaining hygiene).

To be found disabled by meeting listing 12.06, you'll need to provide medical evidence from a psychiatrist or psychologist that shows the extent of your panic attacks. Your medical records should contain at least one full description of a typical panic attack, documentation of how long your panic attacks last for and how often they occur, and possible causes for the panic attacks.

If you have doctors, counselors, or therapists who have witnessed you during one of your panic attacks, they should include their observations along with a medical source opinion stating any difficulties with public interaction, decision making, or concentration you have as a result of your panic disorder. You can also have a friend or family member who's seen you have panic attacks provide a description of what they saw.

Getting Disability for Panic Disorder by Showing That You Can't Work

Not everybody with panic disorder experiences panic attacks of the duration and severity required to meet the listing. But you can still qualify for disability benefits if you can show that your panic attacks keep you from performing any job.

Social Security decides whether you can work by looking at your daily activities and your medical records to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions on the most you're capable of doing, mentally or physically, at work.

The amount of restrictions in your RFC depends on how severe your panic disorder is. More limitations in your RFC means that fewer jobs exist that you're able to perform safely, and certain restrictions can rule out full-time work entirely. For example, somebody who experiences a mild panic attack every month might need an extra 15-minute break to get their fear under control, but that limitation is unlikely to eliminate all jobs. But somebody who is unable to leave their house for days because of ongoing agoraphobia isn't likely to maintain full-time work.

Having a Lawyer Can Help You Get Benefits for Panic Attacks

Few people are awarded disability benefits at the initial determination level, and gathering the medical evidence needed to support an application for panic disorder can be challenging and time-consuming. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate to help guide you through the disability determination process.

Your lawyer or representative will know how to obtain the proper medical evidence to support an argument that your panic disorder meets the listing or that you'd be unable to work full-time. Your attorney can help you document your panic attacks, handle communications with the Social Security Administration, and represent you at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

You can find a lawyer near you using our attorney locator tool here.

Updated January 18, 2023

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