Social Security Disability Benefits for Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder

In certain circumstances, Social Security will award disability benefits for panic disorder and panic attacks.

Panic attacks are frequently cited on applications for disability, generally along with other psychiatric conditions, such as depression and one or more phobias, such as agoraphobia. It has been estimated that about 10% of the general public may experience one panic attack per year, and about one in sixty individuals in the US suffers from panic disorder at one time in their lives.

What Are Panic Attacks?

Generally, panic attacks are short, intense episodes of extreme fear or psychological distress. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, hyperventilation, choking, paresthesias (a tingling sensation), and a multitude of other symptoms that may lead an individual to think they are dying or going insane.

A panic attack is different from normal feelings of being extremely worried or "stressed out," in that it occurs suddenly, without any warning, and without any way to stop it, and that the level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation.

A panic attack is not dangerous, but it can be terrifying, largely because sufferers feel they are not fully in control of their actions or emotions. Panic disorder often leads to other complications, such as depression, substance abuse, medical complications, and even suicide. Ironically, people with panic disorder often develop additional phobias that come from fear of the panic attack itself. In these cases, people will avoid certain objects or situations because they fear that these things will trigger another attack.

Treatment Options

Many individuals learn to overcome panic attacks with the help of counseling and medication. However, an individual who has a severe panic disorder (recurrent, uncontrollable panic attacks) may experience nervous exhaustion or agoraphobia (the inability to leave the security of one's home). For those who continue to have panic attacks and these associated psychiatric conditions, it can be difficult to hold down a job. (For more information on related conditions, see our general article on anxiety disorders and disability.)

Social Security Benefits for Panic

To rise to the level of a disability for which Social Security will pay monthly benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) requires that you have:

  • attacks of apprehension, fear, and terror with a sense of doom, that
  • occur frequently (on average of at least once per week), and
  • are sudden and unpredictable.

In addition, the panic attacks must cause you serious problems with one of the following:

  • social functioning
  • being able to leave your house
  • focusing on tasks, or
  • necessary activities like cooking, eating, dressing, bathing, and homemaking.

Medical Documentation Required

Medical documentation of your anxiety condition and the restrictions brought about by the condition is of the utmost importance. Disability claimants who suffer from panic attacks should maintain a consistent relationship with a qualified mental health professional, preferably a psychiatrist (more weight is generally given to the treatment notes provided by an MD). At the very least, a panic attack claimant who has no other treatment options should try to seek regular ongoing treatment from their local department of mental health.

Your doctor should include in his or treatment notes what your panic attacks are like, how long they last, how frequently they occur, and what brings them on, if anything. Most importantly, your doctor should describe how they limit you from doing things at home, at work, or socially. Also in your medical record should be a list of any medications you have tried or are taking, and how they affect your panic disorder.

Alternative Method of Getting Disability

If you don't meet the SSA's formal requirements (above) for an anxiety disorder to qualify for disability benefits -- say you don't have panic attacks once a week -- you might still be able to get disability benefits if your panic disorder severely limits the types of jobs you can do. For more information on this alternative way to get benefits, called a "medical-vocational allowance," see our article on medical-vocational allowances for mental disorders.

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