Can I Get Disability Benefits for Social Anxiety?

If you suffer from social anxiety that causes you to stay at home, you may be able to get disability benefits.

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?

Those with social anxiety often have trouble communicating with managers, co-workers, and the public and they may have trouble attending work every day because of relapses and panic attacks. The side effects of anti-anxiety medication may also make it difficult to concentrate. Severe social anxiety can make it impossible for some individuals to work.

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 (which was updated significantly in 2017). 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

Social Security breaks the listing for anxiety disorders into two separate sets of symptoms. In addition to having one of the sets of required symptoms, you must show that your social anxiety causes certain severe limitations in what you can do.

Symptoms

Panic disorder or agoraphobia. The first set of symptoms is for panic disorder or agoraphobia, which are closely related to social anxiety. You have been diagnosed with panic disorder or agoraphobia and experience one or both of the following:

  • panic attacks followed by a persistent concern or worry about the consequences of having additional panic attacks in the future, and/or
  • increased 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).

General anxiety disorder. The second set of symptoms is for general anxiety disorder. To meet this part of the listing, you must have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and your psychiatric or psychological records must show that you regularly suffer from three or more of the following symptoms as a result of your social anxiety:

  • restlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbance, and/or
  • getting fatigued easily.

Limitations in Activities

Your social anxiety must cause you to experience an extreme limitation in at least one of the following areas, or a "marked” limitation in at least two of the following areas:

  • adapting or managing oneself (controlling your behavior, regulating your emotions, and adapting to change)
  • concentrating and persisting at tasks (being able to complete tasks)
  • interacting with others (using socially appropriate behaviors), and/or
  • understanding and remembering information (being able to understand instructions, learn new things, or apply new knowledge to tasks).

Note that "marked" is worse than moderate—you can think of it as seriously limiting. 

Can I Still Get Disability if I Don’t Meet the Listing?

If Social Security finds your social anxiety disorder doesn’t meet the above listing requirements, the agency will use your medical records to determine your mental residual functional capacity (MRFC). (Your MRFC is what tasks and duties you can do despite your limitations.) The SSA will prepare a report that assesses how your symptoms affect your ability to do the mental and emotional requirements of a job. It may include limitations on your ability to interact with members of the public, get along with co-workers, talk with superiors, and adjust to changes in your environment. The SSA will then compare your MRFC to the requirements of your past jobs. If the SSA concludes that your social anxiety disorder stops you from doing your past work (say your past job required dealing with the public), the agency will look to see whether there are less mentally and socially demanding jobs that you could do.

You should 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 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.

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.

Basic Requirements for Disability

Everyone who applies for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) must also meet the following requirements.

  • You must not be doing a substantial amount of work at the time you apply. (In 2017, the SSA defines a substantial amount of work as earning $1,170 a month or more from working.)
  • Because of your medical condition, you aren't able to do a substantial work for at least 12 consecutive months.

Whether you are financially eligible for SSDI or SSI depends on your work history and your household income levels. For more information, read our sections on SSI and SSDI.

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