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There’s nothing simple or fun about anxiety. Depending on how severe someone’s anxiety is, it can ruin days, it can compromise relationships, it can stop productivity — anxiety can bring some folks screeching to a halt. Knowing that, it’s completely fair to ask: is anxiety a disability?
If you’ve experienced the feeling of crippling anxiety — and its rippling effects — before, you already know the answer to this question. But what do the experts say?
Are the effects of anxiety strong enough to qualify it as a disability? How, exactly, does anxiety affect some peoples’ abilities to function? And most of all, what do the experts say about anxiety as a disability?
If you're wondering if you can get disability for anxiety, this guide is for you. Let’s dig in.
Before we get to the disability question, it’s probably a good idea to talk about the disabling symptoms of anxiety that people experience when suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a type of mental disorder defined by an irrational fear of some yet-undetermined threat or source of danger in the future.
Sometimes, anxiety is simply defined as an intense fear of the uncertain future, and the perceived fear of what could happen.
The different types of anxiety disorders are what happen when this fear becomes chronic, serious and debilitating in a way that affects your overall quality of life, as well as your ability to function in your day-to-day.
Anxiety disorder types include:
People suffering from serious or severe anxiety, panic disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder have a lot of symptoms of anxiety disorders to contend with. They may experience difficulty performing daily activities and routine activities, as well as any of the following:
Shortness of breath
Heart palpitations and increased heart rate
Insomnia and sleep disturbance
The list above represents some — but not all — of the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety that can affect your ability to function properly at work, at home, in social situations, as a partner, as a parent or simply as a human being.
That sounds an awful lot like the definition of a disability to us, but things can get a little complicated when you start to try to pin down an “official” answer.
Because disability is typically defined as a restriction or reduced capacity for performing an activity in a “normal” range, any anxiety that prevents you from doing your work on time, going out in social situations, crossing bridges, confronting a lousy coworker or leaving your home is definitely disabling.
It’s clear from what we’ve already discussed that anxiety can be a mental impairment. But is anxiety a disability?
It can be.
According to the Social Security Administration and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), anxiety is a type of disability and one that you could receive government, employer or medical recognition and support for if it meets certain criteria.
Their distinction requires many of those same symptoms we mentioned earlier, but specifies that it must be limiting to your ability to function or that it must be medically documented for a period of at least two years to qualify for social security’s disability claim.
The ADA says it’s a disability if it substantially limits major life activities, and that you may be allowed certain accommodations (more flexibility in your schedule, breaks for medication, use of white noise or headphones and more) if you’re diagnosed with it.
If this sounds familiar, then you should talk to a healthcare professional about an assessment. You may meet the criteria for an anxious disability.
Finding out that you have a disability can be a little shocking, even if it answers some questions you’ve always had about your own behaviors and struggles.
A healthcare provider can help you navigate this condition and help you plan a pathway to management and treatment (and deal with the question of accommodations).
Before we get to those topics, though, there are some things to know about anxiety disabilities that may help you clear up your own mental health stigma, as well as the stigma of others.
It’s important to note that anxiety does not fit the category of intellectual disabilities — the type of mental capacity issues that make it difficult to think or perform like a normal person.
Intellectual disability is really a question of capability — are you capable of performing a task, learning a skill or caring for yourself?
So, let’s talk hypothetically. Last week, you needed to go to the grocery store. Your symptoms were so bad, however, that they made the trip impossible.
If we removed the barrier (which may be the social anxiety type of anxiety disorder of being surrounded by strangers, the fear of getting into a car accident on the way to the market or any other possible anxiety triggers that prevented you from making the trip), you’re perfectly capable of going and physically getting groceries.
That means it’s not an intellectual disability.
People who go out of their way to avoid these activities aren’t demonstrating that they’re not disabled, so much as they’re going to great and exhausting lengths to avoid those disabilities being put on display.
This, by the way, is called avoidance behavior, and it’s a standard metric for determining the severity of anxiety.
The important thing to understand is that anxiety may be disabling, but it does not make you lesser, or worthless (no disability does).
Believing this is a great example of disability stigma — a misunderstanding of what disability is that further harms the people living with them.
Disability should always be a metric for communicating additional needs — not measuring your worth.
If your anxiety means that you require a little more time with work or tests, or if it means that your family or partner needs to be clearer in their explanations about plans or conflict, that’s not a reflection of your worth — it’s a reflection of your needs.
If your mental functioning, social functioning and daily activities are feeling impaired by anxiety symptoms or symptoms of other mental health disorders, you may want to seek treatment.
Disabling anxiety is the sort of thing you want to bring to the attention of a healthcare professional, particularly if the “disabling” is happening to your work life, your home life, your personal life or your overall quality of life.
Treatment for anxiety isn’t necessarily going to “cure” your condition, but it will provide you with some tools for managing anxiety disorders that should alleviate some of the burden.
Those treatments might include mental health therapy, which is generally a great way to discuss and learn about some of the patterns of thought that cause us distress in anxiety disorders.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular is a system in which people with anxiety can learn to identify unhealthy patterns of thought and reframe them into healthier, more productive patterns, rather than letting those thoughts take control.
Anxiety medication can also benefit anxious individuals — antidepressants are generally considered effective for anxiety treatment because many of them (like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are believed to help regulate the amounts of certain neurotransmitters in your brain, which may help reduce some of your anxiety symptoms.
A healthcare provider may also note — and suggest changes to — ways that your lifestyle and health choices might be impacting your anxiety.
But cutting down on caffeine and stress, eliminating things like narcotics and booze and generally making healthy choices can positively impact your mental health in measurable ways.
Proper professional, social and governmental support for disabilities is important, and if you think you meet the criteria to get assistance, you should make it a priority.
Removing barriers between yourself and the success and fulfillment you deserve is no small feat, but it’s one that deserves your attention.
But the best support you can get is the kind you receive from a healthcare provider. In our opinion, your support journey should start there, always.
Getting a healthcare professional involved in your struggles won’t just give you better support when you’re trying to prove disability, it will also give you great support for managing and treating the disabling anxiety in question.
As we mentioned, treatment looks different for everyone — a healthcare professional is the best person to help you figure out what will work for you, and what might not be in your best interest.
If you’re ready to start talking to people who can help, we can put you in touch with those people. Our mental health resources are a great place to continue learning about anxiety and other mental health conditions, but also to pursue treatment in the form of medication.
As for therapy, we can help with that too — our online therapy platform can conveniently match you with therapy professionals so that you can find the right person to support you on your journey without so much as putting on pants.
Anxiety can be disabling, but it doesn’t have to define you. Define yourself today — and get help taking anxiety off that list.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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