Panic attacks are one of the most commonly claimed severe impairments that Social Security claims examiners see on disability applications. Panic attacks are frequently diagnosed along with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and phobias (such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia).
Some estimates put 10% of the general public as having one panic attack per year, and about one out of every 60 people in the US will have a panic attack at least once in their lives. If you have panic attacks so often that they prevent you from working full-time, you could qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.
Panic attacks are short, intense episodes of extreme fear or psychological distress. Some people describe them as a short period of apprehension or terror with a sense of doom. Physical symptoms may include:
While symptoms can vary from person to person (and from one panic attack to the next), the hallmark of a panic attack is sudden fear that occurs without warning and not as a response to any immediate danger.
Panic attacks aren't the same as the feelings of worry or stress that are normal responses to life's ups and downs. Panic attacks aren't dangerous, but they can be terrifying. During a panic attack, you might feel that you aren't fully in control of your actions or emotions. Or, you might describe feeling paralyzed with fear and anxiety.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that frequent, debilitating panic attacks can interfere with your ability to work full-time. Whether the SSA finds that your panic attacks are disabling depends on the frequency and duration of the attacks, along with how well you can manage them with counseling and medication.
Your panic attacks might not be disabling on their own. But because panic disorders often occur at the same time as other mental disorders, the SSA will look at the combined effect of any other impairments you might have in order to determine whether you're disabled. For more information on related conditions, see our general article on anxiety disorders and disability.
The SSA maintains a list of disorders that it considers automatically disabling in certain circumstances. Anxiety and panic disorders are included in one of what the SSA calls the "listed impairments." If your medical record contains evidence of the specific criteria set out in Listing 12.06, the agency can find you disabled without having to show that you can't do any jobs.
To qualify for disability under Listing 12.06, your medical record has to show evidence of at least one of the following:
You must also meet "functional" criteria to show that you have a loss of abilities due to your panic disorder. Simply having a diagnosis isn't enough—you'll have to show that your panic disorder causes an "extreme" (debilitating) limitation in one, or a "marked" (intense, but not debilitating) limitation in two, of the following areas:
Proving these limitations can be tricky because terms like "marked" and "extreme" are subjective and not very well-defined. To help the SSA understand how you meet these criteria, it's a good idea to ask your doctor or counselor to write a medical source statement.
Most applicants who are found disabled under Listing 12.06 do have evidence of marked or extreme limitations. But the SSA can find that you're medically disabled without those limitations if you can show that you're only able to get by as well as you do because you have a lot of help. The agency will look for evidence of a support system that you can't function without, such as social workers, group homes, or family members who make sure that you're taking care of yourself.
Social Security can still find you disabled even when the agency doesn't think you have the right evidence to meet Listing 12.06— if you can show that your panic attacks prevent you from holding any full-time jobs.
Even the easiest, least stressful jobs require you to show up on time and perform the job duties. But if you're calling in sick regularly because you feel too overwhelmed to leave the house, or if you're so worried about a panic attack occurring that you can't concentrate on the simplest instructions, it's unlikely that any employer would hire you.
The frequency and duration of your panic attacks play a large role in the SSA's determination of whether you can work. Employers will tolerate a certain amount of unscheduled absences and "off-task" behavior from employees. This amount can vary, but broadly speaking, taking more than one day off per month, or being 10-20% less productive than expected, is what the agency calls "inconsistent with competitive employment." The SSA will find you disabled if the time you spend not working because of your panic attacks is outside employer tolerances.
The agency's process of determining what activities you can handle in a work setting is called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your medical record is the foundation of your disability claim. Because most people only go to the doctor or therapist when something's wrong, if the agency doesn't see that you've attempted treatment, they could assume that your panic attacks aren't that serious. (Your local department of mental health can be a valuable resource if your medical records are a little sparse.)
Try to maintain a consistent relationship with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other qualified mental health professional. Your doctor or therapist's progress notes should include your doctor's impressions of how you're reacting to prescribed medications, what you're talking about in counseling sessions, and how you're acting and thinking (tearful, anxious, angry) during visits.
Ask if your doctor or therapist can write a medical source statement outlining your limitations. The agency values the opinions of treating medical professionals who can shed light on your limitations, especially if you have an opinion from a medical doctor (psychiatrist).
You can help Social Security understand what your panic attacks are like, how long they last, and how frequently they occur by being thorough when you fill out your activities of daily living (ADLs) questionnaire. Be sure to mention how your panic attacks limit you from doing things at home or with your family and friends.
Updated July 14, 2022