Most people have moments where they experience anxiety or stress as a normal reaction to life's ups and downs. People without anxiety disorders can usually find healthy ways of coping with temporary stress. But for someone with an anxiety disorder, stressful feelings of worry and fear aren't temporary, and they can get worse over time. Anxious feelings loom over everyday activities and can make it difficult to complete ordinary, routine tasks. The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms from anxiety disorders can prevent you from working.
When an anxiety disorder has affected your ability to function at work and at home for at least 12 months, you could be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. But your anxiety has to be more than ordinary worries; it has to be severe enough to significantly limit your ability to do various work activities. For example, if you become nervous and avoid all social situations with friends and family, you might not be able to successfully navigate even short interactions with coworkers. With enough evidence of your anxiety symptoms, Social Security can award you disability benefits. (More on this below.)
Anxiety disorders come in different varieties. Your doctor or psychologist may have diagnosed you with one or more of the following:
Because many of the symptoms of these disorders overlap, some people are diagnosed with several of these disorders. For example, somebody who needs to repeatedly make sure that the stove is off can experience a panic attack when something prevents them from checking the kitchen.
If you have symptoms of several disorders, the SSA will look at the combined symptoms when determining whether you're disabled. The more symptoms you experience, the more likely it is that the SSA will consider that, in total, your limitations are disabling.
The main symptom of all anxiety disorders is a feeling of excessive fear or worry. The specific symptoms depend on the type of anxiety disorder. Common additional symptoms include:
Anxiety disorders often have physical symptoms as well. Physical symptoms can include:
Additional physical symptoms can include dry mouth, muscle tension, and dizziness. If you've been experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it's important to tell your doctor and get treatment. Social Security needs to see medical documentation that you've been experiencing symptoms of anxiety before the agency can find you disabled.
Anxiety disorders affect everybody differently. Some people can manage their symptoms very well with talk therapy, medications, or a combination of both. Social Security is unlikely to find them disabled if their symptoms don't interfere significantly with their life. Others might find that, despite therapy and medications, they still have a tough time with daily activities like grocery shopping or remembering to pay bills.
For some people, symptoms of their anxiety disorders are so intense that, based on the symptoms and limitations in their medical record, Social Security finds them disabled without needing to determine that they can't do any job. The SSA identifies these applicants as having a "medical disability." Applicants who are medically disabled due to post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, might have records showing frequent hospitalizations for anxiety symptoms, or an inability to support themselves without lots of outside help.
The SSA more commonly awards benefits for "vocational disability," meaning that the SSA finds that your limitations prevent you from being able to do any job. Applicants whose anxiety is vocationally disabling might not be able to concentrate long enough to finish even simple work tasks. Or, people with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia might be unreliable employees because their intense fear of leaving the house causes them to be consistently late.
In order to determine whether your anxiety disorder is disabling—medically or vocationally—the SSA will want to see that you've been receiving regular treatment for your anxiety. The agency will ask you to sign a release form, authorizing your doctors to send your medical records to the SSA. Your medical records should contain:
Most importantly, you will need to explain what happens as a result of your anxiety. Social Security wants to know how your anxiety symptoms limit your everyday life. The SSA will conclude that if you struggle to do something at home (such as remembering to do everyday household tasks), you'd have the same struggle at work.
Think of it this way: if you suffer from panic attacks at home and you have a panic attack at work, what would you do? Would you have to leave the job site? Would you lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour? Or, would you suffer in silence but be unable to finish your work tasks because you lost your focus?
The SSA will look at the above factors to determine whether you're medically disabled or whether, in vocational terms, you're "unable to sustain competitive employment." Taking extra breaks, calling in sick too frequently, or being unable to perform your job duties can signal to the SSA that no employers would hire you for full-time work.
If you have a doctor or counselor whom you've seen consistently for a long time—say, over a year—it can be very helpful to your disability claim to ask one or both of them to write a medical source statement about your anxiety disorder. The medical source statement should contain your doctors' opinions about what triggers your anxiety and the effect of your anxiety disorder on your ability to work.
Because a successful disability application frequently hinges on whether the SSA thinks you can work at any job, you could try to get a statement from your past employer (if possible) regarding any work absences due to anxiety symptoms. If you've had a hard time holding on to a job in the past because of your struggles with anxiety, it's reasonable to conclude that you'd have trouble with employment in the future.
Updated March 15, 2023