mental disorders

How Anxiety Can Qualify for Disability Benefits

Jackie Jakab, Attorney
By Jackie Jakab, Attorney

If you’ve struggled to hold jobs because of your anxiety or panic attacks, you may qualify for disability benefits. In 2020, 13.1% of workers received disability benefits for anxiety or their mental health.

We’ll go over what qualifies as anxiety, when anxiety can qualify you for disability, and what you should do if you think you qualify for benefits.

Is anxiety a disability?

Yes, the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers anxiety as a disability. However, people with anxiety may find it challenging to prove that their condition qualifies them for monthly disability benefits.

How the SSA defines anxiety

According to the SSA, people with anxiety disorders may experience excessive anxiety, worry, or fear that gets in the way of their daily lives. They may also avoid certain thoughts, objects, places, or people because of their condition.

Common symptoms of anxiety can include restlessness, inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, becoming easily fatigued, and constant thoughts or fears about safety.

Common types of anxiety

The SSA groups anxiety disorders with a handful of similar mental disorders. Some common types of anxiety that the SSA defines as disabilities include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias, such as agoraphobia

Can you get disability for anxiety?

You can generally get disability for anxiety if your condition leaves you completely unable to work or unable to go through daily life on your own. However, the SSA has very strict criteria for who can get benefits because of anxiety or other mental health conditions.

Unfortunately, the SSA will not take you at your word that anxiety keeps you from holding a job. You’ll need medical proof of your symptoms and their effects on your life. Your best option is working with a doctor (and likely a lawyer) to properly document your condition.

Criteria for getting disability with anxiety

There are a few general criteria that allow you to qualify for disability benefits if you have anxiety. First you must have documented proof of your anxiety disorder. Additionally, you must be able to show at least one of the following two criteria: your anxiety greatly limits your mental abilities, or you’ve received multiple years of treatment for anxiety but it still persists. 

Requirements for getting disability for anxiety disorder:

1. Prove you have an anxiety disorder AND 2a. Prove that your anxiety disorder severely limits your mental abilities OR 2b. Prove you have serious anxiety that has continued for at least two years

1. Prove you have an anxiety disorder 

If you have an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder, you must be able to medically prove that you experience at least three of the following eight symptoms:

  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep)
  • You become easily fatigued

If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, you must experience one or both of the following:

  • You have an involuntary and time-consuming preoccupation with intrusive, unwanted thoughts.
  • You engage in repetitive or ritualistic behaviors to reduce your anxiety.

If you have phobias or panic disorder, you must meet one or both of these criteria:

  • You experience regular panic attacks. You’re also persistently worried about additional panic attacks or the negative consequences of an attack.
  • You experience significant fear or anxiety about at least two different situations, such as being in a crowd, waiting in a line, using public transportation, being outside of your home, or being in open spaces.

2a. Prove anxiety severely limits your mental abilities

The SSA will consider four key areas of your mental functioning:

  • Your ability to understand, remember, or apply information
  • Your ability to interact with others
  • Your ability to concentrate and to stay on task at a sustained rate
  • Your ability to adapt to changes or manage yourself

You need medical records showing that your anxiety is extremely limiting for at least one area, or markedly limiting for multiple.

With an extreme limitation, you may find yourself unable to independently function in that area for a sustained amount of time. For a marked limitation, your ability to function is seriously limited but you can handle it on your own.

You don’t need documentation for every example of how anxiety affects your mental functioning. But you do need clear evidence showing that your condition affects the abilities listed above.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a hard time ignoring and avoiding distractions while working?
  • Is it hard for me to consistently work at an appropriate pace?
  • Do I struggle to understand and follow oral instructions?
  • Do I find it difficult to respond to requests, criticisms, or corrections?
  • Have I ever been fired from a job because I had a disagreement with someone?
  • Can I watch a two-hour movie and follow it from start to finish without getting lost?
  • Do I have to regularly rewind something I’m watching?
  • Does someone have to help me remember to take my medicine or remember my doctor’s appointments?

2b. Prove that your anxiety is serious and long-term

You can show the SSA that your anxiety disorder is “serious and persistent” through medical records showing three things:

  • You’ve had anxiety for at least two years.
  • You receive ongoing medical treatment to help manage or diminish your symptoms. Treatment can include mental health therapy. The SSA will also consider forms of support you receive to help manage daily life. Examples include relying on family members to help with daily activities, living in a group home or transitional housing for 24/7 care, and receiving psychosocial support through a rehabilitation program.
  • Even with your care, you have been mostly or completely unable to adapt to changes in your environment or to new demands that aren’t already part of your daily life.

Persistent care is very important for you to satisfy this set of criteria. The SSA may deny your benefits claim if you’ve been inconsistent with your treatment or if there are periods where you didn’t fully comply with your treatment.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a hard time doing daily activities, like bathing, getting dressed, cooking, or grocery shopping?
  • Is it hard for me to handle new things or new people in my life?
  • Do I ever have suicidal thoughts?
  • Have I experienced episodes that require hospitalization, new medications, or additional treatments?

My anxiety meets the criteria. Now what?

If your anxiety meets the criteria above, the next step is to apply for disability benefits. Apply as soon as you can. The process is long and putting it off means any potential benefits will take longer to get.

The fastest way to know whether you meet all the technical requirements for disability is to take our 2-minute quiz. And if you do qualify, we can also refer you to an experienced disability lawyer. (Our services are completely free and you wouldn’t have to pay the lawyer unless they win your case.)

It also helps to know what kind of disability benefits you’re applying for. Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is generally available if you’ve worked at least five of the past 10 years, but can no longer work. It offers the highest disability benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is income-based. So if you haven’t worked much in the past 10 years, you can still qualify if you have little to no income. Learn more about SSDI vs. SSI.

What if my anxiety doesn’t meet the criteria?

If your condition doesn’t satisfy the criteria above, you can still apply for disability benefits. The most important thing is that you can prove you’re unable to work because of your anxiety disorder.

The unfortunate truth is that qualifying for disability is difficult. Your initial application will likely get denied if you can’t clearly meet all the SSA criteria. But that doesn’t mean you should give up.

Only about 20% of people applying for disability benefits win their claim on the initial application. You can always appeal, giving you a chance to submit new medical evidence and better argue your case in front of a judge. At this stage, you're much more likely to win (nearly half of applicants get approved).

How much is a disability check for anxiety?

The average disability check for anxiety or other mental disorders is $1,098.16. If you qualify for benefits with anxiety, the maximum disability payment for SSDI is about $3,300 per month and the most you can get from SSI is $841 per month. These amounts are set by law and are the same for every condition. Qualifying under a different disability or having multiple conditions won’t increase your payments.

The actual amount of your disability check will vary based on your work history, your other sources of income, and the value of any assets you have. Its also possible to qualify for SSDI and SSI at the same time.

For more information, read our breakdown of how much you will make on SSDI or SSI.

3 tips for getting disability with anxiety

Here are a few things you can do to increase your chances of winning your claim:

  • Learn more about the types of disability insurance so you know what you may qualify for and when to apply.
  • Work closely with your doctor to ensure your medical records are complete and clearly show the symptoms of your anxiety. (We’ve also covered how your doctor can help with disability).
  • Work with a disability lawyer. Lawyers are experts in the application process and will know how to maximize your chance of success. People who work with a lawyer are three times more likely to win their disability case. (Read more on what disability lawyers actually do for you.)

Ready to get benefits today?
Jackie Jakab, Attorney
Jackie Jakab, AttorneyJackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
B Corp

At the bottom of many websites, you'll find a small disclaimer: "We are not a law firm and are not qualified to give legal advice." If you see this, run the other way. These people can't help you: they're prohibited by law from giving meaningful advice, recommending specific lawyers, or even telling you whether you need a lawyer at all. Most make money by selling advertisements or hawking your personal information to the highest bidder.

There's no disclaimer here: Atticus is a law firm, and we are qualified to give legal advice. We can answer your most pressing questions, make clear recommendations, and search far and wide to find the right lawyer for you. It's not easy: being a licensed law firm subjects us to complex regulations and requires painstaking work. But it's worth it, because it means we can truly help our clients as they take on life's biggest challenges. Others can't.

Two important things to note: If we give you legal advice, it will be through a lawyer on our staff communicating with you directly. (Don't make important decisions about your case based solely on this or any other website.) And if we take you on as a client, it will be through a document you sign. (No attorney-client relationship arises from using this site or calling us.) If any of this isn't clear, please reach out: we're always happy to explain more.

© 2022 Atticus Law, P.C. ・ TermsPrivacy Disclaimer ・ This website is lawyer advertising. ・ Cal Bar #23984