Is anxiety a disability?

Cristina Po Wenger
Author: Cristina Po Wenger Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Worrying about health, work, money, or family forms part of everyday life. Temporary anxiety can stem from stressful or traumatic events in one’s life. But an anxiety disorder is something constant that may get worse over time. Anxiety disorders can interfere with relationships, job performance, and life in general. But can anxiety be classed as a disability?

Types of anxiety

Generalized Anxiety (GAD)

People with GAD experience constant feelings of anxiety, dread or tension, not related to anything in particular, and which can persist for months or even years.

Symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of restlessness, being constantly on-edge or easily wound-up
  • Fatigue
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained pains, such as head, stomach, or muscle aches.
  • Sleeping problems
  • Feelings of worry that are difficult to control

Phobias

A phobia is an overwhelming, intense and irrational fear of situations, places, objects or events. People with phobias are excessively anxious about encountering these situations, events, or objects and take steps to actively avoid them. Examples of simple or specific phobias are a fear of flying, heights or blood.

Panic Disorder

This disorder is characterized by panic attacks, unexpected episodes of extreme fear or discomfort, with no identifiable cause or danger. A person with panic disorder will have frequent attacks, and a persistent fear of losing control. They will avoid places or situations associated with these attacks.

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Chest pain
  • Feelings of impending doom or losing control.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Involves an intense and recurring fear of being judged by others. People with social anxiety disorder might not be able to control their fear of social situations, which can affect work, school attendance or everyday social activities. Symptoms include:

  • Heart pounding
  • Blushing
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Stomachache
  • Difficulty being with strangers and making eye-contact
  • Self-consciousness and fear of being judged

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People with OCD experience recurrent involuntary thoughts or impulses which they try to relieve through repetitive or ritualistic tasks. Rituals are often time-consuming and may involve checking or cleaning. For example, repetitively checking for their keys before leaving their home, or constantly washing their hands. These involuntary thoughts are usually related, but not limited, to violence, germs, religion, or sex.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Also referred to as PTSD, this disorder is a reaction to a traumatic event experienced or witnessed, such as natural disasters, episodes of violence or abuse. Symptoms include involuntarily re-living the experience through recurring flashbacks or dreams. People with PTSD will avoid situations or places that might remind them of the event or have increased reactivity or hypervigilance in certain situations.[1][2]

How can an anxiety disorder affect your ability to work?

It is normal to experience a certain level of anxiety in the workplace. For example, feelings of nervousness about a presentation or meeting, or fear of a project which is pushing you out of your comfort zone and its impending deadline. However, if you suffer from an anxiety disorder, these feelings of dread may be irrational, unexpected, and recurring, and can seriously affect your work-life and career.[3] 

According to the national survey on anxiety in the workplace[4], difficult situations at work which can trigger symptoms of anxiety disorder include dealing with problems and deadlines, maintaining personal relationships with colleagues and managing staff, making presentations or participating in meetings. Participants stated that their anxiety impacts their workplace performance, the quality of their work, and their relationships with coworkers and with their superiors. Four in ten participants agreed that anxiety formed part of their normal life. 

Anxiety can affect your work performance and life in the following ways:

  • Loss of focus: A person suffering from anxiety disorders will struggle to pay attention and to deal with the pressure of making decisions. Even basic tasks may become harder, as anxiety prevents you from concentrating on the task at hand.
  • Fatigue and sleep deprivation: Dealing with anxiety and its symptoms can make you feel emotionally drained and exhausted. Being in a constant fight-or-flight mode or sleep-deprived will affect your productivity and performance levels, as well as your mood and relationship with colleagues.
  • Irritable, impatient and grumpy when feeling emotionally distressed and anxious. It can harm your relationship with your co-workers if you are constantly in a bad and irritable mood, especially if your work is collaborative. You do not want to be ostracized or told off by your manager, so it is important that you learn how to manage anxiety and cope with added stressors in a professional setting.
  • Intense fear of failure: Anxiety comes from an impending sense of dread or doom, and this can lead you to doubt your capabilities and to feel less self-assured at work. This fear of failure and of being judged by other colleagues can put your job at risk by making you skip work events, avoiding presentations or meetings, and severely procrastinating when having to start a new project.
  • Stagnate your career: Anxiety and its fear of failure might stop you from taking risks or voluntarily taking on new challenges which will help you advance in your career. Social anxiety means you will avoid social situations at work which will affect your networking, also key to career advancement or promotion.
  • Limitations in career choice: For example, for certain anxiety disorders, physical work may be out of the question. If you have panic attacks, shaking or muscle tension, some physical jobs can become very difficult to handle or even dangerous for the person and his / her colleagues. Phobias, PTSD or OCD may also limit the types of environments in which the person can work in. 

Can you get disability benefits for anxiety?

If your anxiety disorder seriously causes professional limitations in one or more areas, such as difficulties to function socially and interact with colleagues or superiors, manage basic tasks or routines, understand professional concepts or instructions, concentrating, or even leaving the house, there is a probability that you are eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits.

However, you need to prove your symptoms are chronic, that they meet a specific medical diagnosis related to anxiety, and that they negatively impact your ability to have a normal work life. If they do, you need to provide proper evidence: a professional diagnosis and analysis of a mental health specialist.

To evaluate these claims, the Social Security Administration refers to the Blue Book listing of impairments[2], a guide which lists the disabilities that qualify for Social Security benefits. Anxiety disorders that can qualify are GAD, PTSD, OCD, panic disorder or some types of phobias, such as agoraphobia. Depending on your anxiety disorder, you need to fulfill specific requirements that prove your inability to perform even low-stress jobs.

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: you must have three or more symptoms to prove that your disorder has profound effects on you physically and emotionally. Symptoms can include irritability, fatigue, difficulties concentrating, sleep deprivation, muscle tension or restlessness.
  • Phobia: Social Security requires you to have an extreme fear of at least two situations such as using public transport, standing in a line, a fear of crowds, of leaving one’s home or of being in open spaces.
  • Panic disorder: you must have extreme panic attacks and a constant fear of additional ones in the future and their consequences.
  • OCD: you must have involuntary and time-consuming thoughts and preoccupations and / or repetitive behaviors.
  • PTSD: you must have medical documentation that shows your exposure to a traumatic event, involuntary re-experiencing of this event, disturbances in behavior, an increased reactivity and active avoidance of places or situations that may remind you of the event.

If your disorder or the severity of your symptoms do not qualify for Social Security’s impairment listing, you might be eligible for disability benefits. Social Security will analyze your limitations in relation to your ability to work through your “residual functional capacity”, which indicates if you are able to perform skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled or less than unskilled work.

How to claim social security benefits for anxiety

Getting disability benefits is a long and grueling process. Typically, you’ll have to prove you haven’t been able to work for 2 years. Also, once on disability you cannot have another income stream, so this should be a last course of action. People with anxiety disorders often see improvements in their condition if they go to therapy and take medication.

However, if after reading this article you think you have the right to social security benefits and you believe this is the best course of action to take, consider the following:

  • Work with a Social Security lawyer or disability lawyer: your chances will improve, and the process will be less stressful. If your claim gets denied, your lawyer will help you appeal.
  • You can apply online here, by phone calling 800-772-1213 (TTY: 800-325-0778) or in person at your local Social Security office.
  • Make sure you present a substantial medical history, including diagnosis, analysis, and treatments you have received from your physician and a qualified mental health professional. This way you can show your anxiety is recurrent.
  • In your application, give substantial evidence on how your anxiety has affected any job you have had in the past or any available job you could currently apply to.
Resources
  1. National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety Disorders, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders, accessed 15th of January 2023
  2. Social Security Administration of the United States of America, Disability Evaluation Under Social Security, 12.00 Mental Disorders – Adult, https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/12.00-MentalDisorders-Adult.htm accessed 15th of January 2023
  3. Plaisier, I., Beekman, A. T. F., de Graaf, R., Smit, J. H., van Dyck, R., & Penninx, B. W. J. H. (2010). Work functioning in persons with depressive and anxiety disorders: The role of specific psychopathological characteristics. Journal of Affective Disorders, 125(1), 198–206. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2010.01.072
  4. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Highlights: Workplace stress & anxiety disorders survey, http://www.adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey. Accessed on the 15th of January 2023.
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Cristina Po Wenger
Author Cristina Po Wenger Writer

Meet Cristina Po Wenger, our medical writer. Cristina is a passionate mental health advocate with a sociology degree from the University of Stirling.

Published: Mar 29th 2023, Last edited: Oct 24th 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Mar 29th 2023