Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is a chronic mental illness where sufferers experience crippling anxiety when faced with every day social interactions. Symptoms include difficulty talking and making eye contact, intense fear of interacting with strangers, and the fear of being embarrassed or judged.
Although many people experience these symptoms from time to time, people with social anxiety disorder suffer them to the extent that their daily work, school, and social routines are disrupted. People with social anxiety disorder also experience physical manifestations such as blushing, sweating, fast heartbeat, confusion, diarrhea, and trembling or shaking.
Social anxiety disorder can usually be treated, with varying degrees of success, with a combination of medication and therapy.
Can I Get Disability for My Social Anxiety Disorder?
Before the Social Security Administration (SSA) will assess your medical condition, you must meet the basic requirements for disability.
Basic Requirements for Disability
Everyone who applies for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) must meet the following:
- you are not doing a substantial amount of work
- because of your medical condition, you can’t do a unsubstantial work for at least 12 consecutive months.
In 2014, the SSA defines a substantial amount of work as earning $1,070 a month or more from working.
Ways to Qualify Medically for Disability
To decide if you qualify for disability for your social anxiety disorder, the SSA will first evaluate whether your condition is eligible for benefits under its medical listing for anxiety disorders. If your condition fulfills the criteria of the listing, you can be automatically approved for benefits, without the SSA having to look at your age, education, and prior work history.
Anxiety Disorders Listing
There are two ways to "meet" the anxiety listing. First, if you can show that the symptoms of your social anxiety disorder are so severe that you can’t function on your own outside of your house -- at all -- then you will qualify for benefits. If your anxiety doesn't rise to that level, here's what you have to prove.
You must meet the medical records and limitations requirements below.
Medical Records. Your psychiatric or psychological records show that you suffer from one of the following:
- constant anxiety with symptoms like muscle tension, apprehension, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and hyper-alertness
- a constant, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that causes you to avoid that object, activity, or situation, or
- ongoing severe panic attacks (that happen at least once a week) during which you experience sudden and unpredictable feelings of intense fear, impending doom, apprehension, and terror, or
- ongoing obsessions or compulsions that cause you severe distress.
Limitations in activities. Your symptoms (discussed above) must cause you to experience one of the following:
- severe restrictions in your activities of daily living (ADLs)
- severe restrictions in your social functioning
- severe restrictions in your ability to focus, concentrate, or get your work done on time, or
- ongoing and recurrent periods of time where your symptoms get much worse (episodes of decompensation).
Can I Still Get Disability if I Don’t Meet the Listing?
Even if Social Security finds your social anxiety disorder doesn’t meet the above listing requirements, you can still convince the agency that your social fears are serious enough to prevent you from working.
Developing an MRFC
The SSA will use your medical records to determine your mental residual functional capacity (MRFC). (Your MRFC is what tasks and duties you can do, full-time.) The SSA will prepare a report that assesses how your symptoms affect your ability to do the mental and emotional requirements of a job such as:
remembering and following simple instructions
- getting along with co-workers, the public, and superiors
- being reliable
- getting your work done on time, and
- adjusting to changes in your environment.
Those with severe social anxiety will likely have trouble communicating with managers, co-workers, and the public, they may have trouble attending work every day because of relapses and panic attacks, and the side effects of medication may make it difficult to concentrate.
The SSA will then compare your MRFC to the requirements of your past jobs. If the agency thinks you can still do your old job despite your limitations, you will be denied. If the SSA concludes that your social anxiety disorder stops you from doing your past work, the agency will look to see whether there are less mentally and socially demanding jobs that you could do.
You should also ask your treating doctors to fill out an MRFC form for you, including descriptions of your symptoms and how they affect your ability to work. It is better to have a doctor that specializes in anxiety disorders prepare your MRFC (such a psychiatrist or psychologist).
Examples of Comparing an MRFC to Job Requirements
Here are some examples of how MRFCs were used to help decide a claimant’s case.
- The claimant filed for disability based on social anxiety disorder. Her medical records showed that she had been seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist for several years with limited success. She was also on medication that caused severe daytime drowsiness and interfered with her memory. Her medical records indicated that she had trouble performing basic tasks like going to the grocery store or her doctor’s office on her own, and that her adult son had to go with her. The records also showed that, except for these necessary outings, she stayed home. She no longer went to church or on other outings because of her intense social anxiety. The SSA prepared an MRFC using the medical records in her file and determined that she experienced serious difficulties in her ability to remember instructions, be reliable, pay attention to her work and to get it done on time. Her psychiatrist also prepared an MRFC for her that indicated the same limitations. The SSA concluded that these limitations prevented her from working on a regular and sustained basis and she was approved for benefits.
- The claimant filed for disability based on social anxiety disorder. His medical records showed that he had seen a psychologist on an irregular basis over the years for his condition. His records also showed that he took medication for his anxiety that caused drowsiness and interfered with his ability to focus and concentrate. However, the claimant’s records also showed that despite his condition, he was still able to occasionally go to movies with friends, do his own laundry at the laundry mat, and drive his car short distances. Based on this evidence, the SSA concluded that the claimant’s symptoms did not seriously interfere with his ability to perform the basic mental and emotional requirements of work such as being reliable, getting along with others, remembering and following simple instructions, and traveling to work. Subsequently, he was denied benefits.
You can learn more about how the evaluates mental limitations be reading our article about MRFCs.
The Importance of Medical Records
Regardless of whether you meet the listing requirements or will have an MRFC, you will need to provide the SSA with objective medical evidence to support your claim. Examples of this evidence are:
- records from your psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or therapist showing the extent of your limitations
- a list of medications and their side effects, and
- information about any hospitalizations due to your social anxiety disorder.
Make sure you give the SSA the complete contact information for any medical providers you have seen for treatment. If you hire an attorney, your attorney will request the records for you. It may be helpful to discuss your claim with an experienced disability attorney; disability claims based on mental illness can be a challenge to win. Consult with a disability attorney in your area.