Anxiety Disorder: How to Get Social Security Disability Benefits

Those whose anxiety has a severe, negative impact on their lives and their ability to work and function socially may be able to get disability benefits.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Generalized anxiety is a disorder where you might often have anxiety (presented as persistent feelings of worry, apprehension, tension, or uneasiness), even when little or nothing is happening to provoke it. Anxiety disorders are the most common of emotional disorders, affecting about 40 million adults in the U.S.

Is Anxiety a Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms from severe anxiety can prevent you from working or being productive at work. To qualify for disability benefits, you must have a diagnosis of anxiety with several symptoms of anxiety, such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, and becoming easily fatigued. Plus, you must have a loss of abilities (more on this below).

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can include:

  • overwhelming feelings of panic and fear
  • uncontrollable obsessive thoughts
  • recurring nightmares, and
  • painful, intrusive memories.

Some people also suffer from:

  • constant worry
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • tiredness
  • difficulty focusing, and
  • constantly being on alert for perceived threats.

While these symptoms may seem obvious to many, not everyone knows that chronic anxiety can lead to physical symptoms as well. Physical symptoms caused by anxiety can include increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, nausea, muscle tension, an easy startle reflex, and other uncomfortable physical reactions.

Anxiety disorder differs from normal feelings of nervousness—the symptoms of anxiety disorder often occur for no apparent reason and do not go away. Rather than functioning as a call to action, these alarming reactions can make everyday experiences sources of potential terror. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can propel people to take extreme measures (such as refusing to leave the house) to avoid situations that may trigger or worsen their anxiety. Job performance and personal relationships can suffer as a result.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are several types of anxiety disorder:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by at least six months of a more-or-less constant state of tension or worry, not related to any specific event.
  • Panic disorder causes repeated, unprovoked attacks of anxiety or terror lasting up to ten minutes. (See our article on disability and panic attacks.)
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) involves the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. Phobias are irrational, involuntary, and overwhelming fears that lead a person to avoid common objects, events, or situations, including social situations. In agoraphobia, there is fear of leaving the safety of one's home. (See our article on disability and social anxiety.)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, persistent, and intrusive thoughts or impulses that the person may feel can be controlled by performing repetitive behaviors. Although most experts no longer consider OCD as an anxiety disorder, the Social Security Administration (SSA) still evaluates it under their listing for anxiety disorders. (See our article on disability and OCD.)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The SSA no longer evaluates PTSD under its listing for anxiety disorders; it now has its own disability listing for trauma- and stressor-related disorders. (See our article on getting disability benefits for PTSD for more information.)

Can You Get Disability for Generalized Anxiety?

Not all cases of anxiety are severe enough to make an individual eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Disability benefits are available only to those who suffer a severe and "marked" impact on their lives as a result of their disability. For example, a person with moderate anxiety who can still shower and get dressed every day and go grocery shopping and cook meals is probably not going to be eligible for benefits. On the other hand, individuals who experience significant interference with their ability to concentrate, to leave the house for errands, or do other normal daily activities may be able to qualify.

In addition to the requirement that the anxiety is sufficiently severe, the SSA also requires that the disability be a long-term one. This means someone's inability to work due to anxiety must have lasted 12 months at the time of the application, or it must be expected to last for 12 months.

The SSA provides guidance as to how severe someone's anxieties or fears must be to make that person eligible for benefits. This guidance is found in the SSA's listing of impairments, which is a list of covered disabilities. The listing provides details on the symptoms and limitations a person must have for a particular disability to be considered disabling.

Social Security's Listing for Anxiety

Social Security's listing for anxiety disorders, listing 12.06, has several parts.

The first part of the listing specifies that, to qualify for disability benefits on the basis of anxiety, you must have a diagnosis of anxiety disorder with at least three of the following symptoms:

• restlessness

• difficulty concentrating

• irritability

• muscle tension

• sleep disturbance (such as insomnia), and/or

• getting tired easily.

The second part of the listing requires you to also meet "functional" criteria to show that you have a loss of abilities due to the disorder. Specifically, you must have an extreme limitation in at least one of the following areas, or a "marked" limitation in at least two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or applying information (the ability to understand instructions, learn new things, apply new knowledge to tasks, and use judgment in decisions)
  • interacting with others (the ability to use socially appropriate behaviors)
  • concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace in performing tasks (the ability to focus and to complete tasks in a timely manner over the course of a workday), and/or
  • adapting or managing oneself (being able to respond to demands, adapt to changes, understand what is acceptable work performance, and have practical personal skills like practicing good hygiene).

Alternative to the second part of the listing. Most applicants with anxiety are able to show they do have marked or extreme limitations. But if you don't currently have severe limitations, Social Security could find you're disabled under the listing if you can show that you're only able to function as well as you do because you get a lot of help. Support could be in the form of having family members who help you on a regular basis, living in a group home, or meeting regularly with a therapist or social worker. Social Security must believe that you have "minimal capacity to adapt" to demands that aren't already part of your daily life; for instance, you would start to experience debilitating anxiety if you returned to a job where stress and demands on your emotional state would be greater.

    Getting Disability Without Meeting the Listing for Anxiety Disorders

    If Social Security finds that your symptoms don't fit into the above listing, you may be able to get disability through a medical-vocational allowance (by showing you can't function enough to do any type of work). If your generalized anxiety is so severe that it prevents you from performing any of your past jobs, and you can't adjust to any other type of work, the SSA should award you disability benefits.

    The SSA will look at your medical records and your activities of daily living to determine what you can and can't do mentally. The agency will then create a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) for you. Your RFC will list the things you have difficulty doing, like working in a noisy environment, talking to the public, or following complex instructions. The more limitations you have in your RFC, the less likely it is that the SSA will be able to identify any jobs that you can do.

    Social Security disability examiners may consider your age, education, work history, and functional capacity when they make these types of medical-vocational determinations.

    Ways to Show That Your Anxiety Is Disabling

    The SSA will want to see notes from your therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist and the results of any psychological testing or evaluations you've had. If you've seen multiple behavioral health professionals over the years, try to get records from as many of them as possible. Your records should include any anxiety medications you've taken, whether they were successful in lessening your anxiety, and what the side effects were.

    One of the forms you'll need to complete as part of your application is a questionnaire about your "activities of daily living," or ADLs. The form is called the Adult Function Report, and it asks you to explain how your anxiety affects your daily life. The form asks about things like housework, meals, yard work, shopping, handling your finances, your social activities, and most importantly, how your symptoms limit your ability to work.

    Be detailed in your responses. For example, if you were having a bad episode of anxiety at work, what would that look like? Would you make mistakes? Would you forget the instructions your boss gave you, and have to ask for them again? Would you not be able to finish any tasks? Would you take frequent bathroom breaks? If you had frequent absences from work due to anxiety, state exactly how many days you missed per month. Also try to explain what triggers your anxiety at work, and at home.

    How Can I Apply for Disability Benefits Based on Anxiety?

    An easy way to apply for Social Security disability benefits is to file your claim online at www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability. You can also file a claim over the phone by contacting the SSA at 800-772-1213, but be prepared for long wait times. For more information, please see our article about applying for Social Security disability benefits.

    If you have questions or you'd like help with your application, try contacting a disability lawyer or advocate, who may be willing to give you a free case evaluation. Working with a disability expert can help you get the evidence you need to convince the SSA that you are disabled enough to qualify for benefits.

    After You Apply for Benefits

    Your claim will be assigned to a specialist for review, and you may be required to attend an interview or even undergo a consultative mental exam with an SSA-approved psychiatrist or psychologist to verify your condition. The process can take several months, but the more evidence and medical documentation you are able to provide, the better your chances of being able to get your claim approved.

    Note that the rules regarding disability for children are different; for more information, see our article on disability benefits for anxiety in children.

    Updated February 27, 2023

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