Disability Determination for Anxiety Disorders

Read up on how Social Security evaluates disability claims based on generalized persistent anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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Social anxiety and other anxiety disorders can be socially limiting at best but at worst can be so disruptive to a person's life that it becomes impossible to work. Anxiety disorders involving phobias, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety can qualify for Social Security disability benefits if they are well documented and severely debilitating. If you've been diagnosed with one of the above disorders and it affects your ability to leave the house, function socially, concentrate, or manage the tasks of daily living, you may be eligible for disability benefits.

Some people claim they have anxiety, nervousness (called a "case of nerves" in the old days), or phobias, but their symptoms are unfortunately a part of modern, stressful life. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits for an anxiety disorder, you have to be able to show that your symptoms are chronic (will last for at least 12 months) and that they meet one of several specific medical diagnoses related to anxiety and that they severely and negatively impact your ability to function in life. In order to suss out cases of anxiety disorders that are truly preventing someone from doing any kind of work, the SSA has developed a list of requirements that your anxiety disorder must fit into.

Disability Caused by Anxiety Disorder

First, let's look at how the SSA evaluates the severity of anxiety disorders. Before it pays benefits, the SSA requires a mental disorder to be so severe that it disrupts your life to a point where you become unable to work at any type of job (no matter how "low pressure" it may be). In addition to fitting within a specific diagnosis below (under "Types of Anxiety Disorders), your anxiety disorder must cause severe limitations in the following areas:

  • understanding and remembering instructions and learning new things
  • interacting with others appropriately
  • concentrating and persisting to complete tasks, and/or
  • managing oneself (being able to cook, shop, pay bills, and practice good hygiene)

    Alternatively, you might be able to qualify without having symptoms of the above limitations if your anxiety has improved with medication or psychosocial support, but your recovery is tenuous and you could experience a setback if you go back to work. To qualify under this alternative, your anxiety must be medically documented as having lasted at least two years, and you must have minimal capacity to adjust to changes in your environment or an increase in mental demands.

    Anxiety Disorders That May Qualify

    It's possible to get disability benefits for mental health conditions, but getting the proper diagnosis is a crucial first step. Your doctor will have to submit medical evidence of your diagnosis, consisting of psychological tests and documentation of symptoms. Here are five ways anxiety disorders can qualify you for disability benefits:

    • generalized persistent anxiety
    • agoraphobia
    • panic attacks
    • obsessive-compulsive disorder, or
    • post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Generalized Persistent Anxiety

    Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a fairly common disorder characterized by chronic fearfulness, apprehension, and stress. While many people experience a mild amount of stress, worry, or fear, to qualify as a disability, the SSA needs to see that the generalized anxiety has profound physical or emotional effects on your body. Your anxiety disorder must be characterized by three or more of the following:

    • restlessness

    • getting fatigued easily

    • difficulty concentrating

    • becoming easily irritated

    • muscle tension, and/or

    • sleep disturbance.

    Phobia

    A phobia is a persistent extreme or irrational fear of a situation, activity, or place, such as the fear of driving over bridges (gephyrophobia), the fear of heights (acrophobia), or the fear of leaving the house (agoraphobia). A phobia causes a compelling need to avoid the feared situation or activity. Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, an intense feeling of fear about and avoidance of interacting with others, can fall into this subcategory. To rise to the level of disability, the SSA requires that you have a disproportionate fear or anxiety about at least two different situations (for example, using public transportation, being in a crowd, being in a line, being outside of your home, or being in open spaces).

    Panic Attacks

    Panic attacks are characterized by sudden periods of intense fear along with physical symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate, and shaking. Many people have experienced mild anxiety attacks in their life but take medication or therapy to manage them, but to rise to the level of disability, the SSA requires that you have severe panic attacks followed by a persistent concern or worry about having additional panic attacks in the future, or a fear of their consequences.

    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, is characterized by repeated unwanted thoughts that compel a person to try to relieve them by performing repetitive tasks, such as constant cleaning or checking. The involuntary thoughts are often about germs, violence, religion, or sex. To qualify for benefits for OCD, the SSA requires that, even with treatment, you have either:

    • an involuntary, time-consuming preoccupation with intrusive, unwanted thoughts, or
    • repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety.

    Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to a traumatic event that you experienced or witnessed, such as rape, physical abuse, killings, or natural disasters. PTSD causes recurrent flashback episodes and dreams that can disrupt day-to-day activity. Some forms of PTSD include an exaggerated startle response and hypervigilance. The SSA requires that even with treatment, you have medical documentation of all of the following:

    • exposure to the threat of death, serious injury, violence, or someone else's death
    • involuntary re-experiencing of the traumatic event (such as having intrusive memories, dreams, or flashbacks)
    • avoidance of external reminders of the event
    • disturbance in mood and behavior, and
    • increases in arousal and reactivity (such as having an exaggerated startle response or sleep disturbance).

    Symptoms Affecting Your Functional Capacity

    If you don't qualify under one of the above SSA impairment listings, as part of the disability determination process, the SSA will automatically consider your symptoms and impairments to see to what extent they impair your daily activities and if there is any kind of work you could do. The SSA will give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do (skilled work, semi-skilled work, unskilled work, or less than unskilled work). This is called your residual functional capacity (RFC). For anxiety disorders, the key question is whether you can do even unskilled work. If your disorder keeps you from leaving the house or interacting with people appropriately, it's possible the SSA could find this, but if your disorder is so severe, it's likely the SSA would have found that you fit into one of its impairment listings for anxiety, agoraphobia, OCD or PTSD, above.

    Starting a Disability Claim

    If you don't know whether you are eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI, where you must have paid enough taxes into Social Security) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI, for low-income filers), you can apply for both. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability. When you fill out your application, include a detailed description of what an episode of intense anxiety (for example, panic attacks or OCD, PTSD, or phobic episodes) looks like for you, as well as how often you have them and how they impair your ability to work.

    If you have both an anxiety disorder and a physical impairment that keeps you from working, consider hiring a lawyer to help you file your claim, or if your initial claim gets denied, to file an appeal.

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