Anxiety impacts millions of Americans, including a significant number of security clearance-holders and applicants. In the vast majority of cases, it is not an impediment to obtaining or retaining a security clearance, regardless of whether it has been formally diagnosed. One notable exception, however, can be SCI billets that require successful completion of a polygraph examination[1]. The polygraph – including the lead-up to it and the actual examination – tends to itself be an anxiety-inducing process. Applicants with anxiety can have significant challenges passing a polygraph examination because of the impact their condition has on their ability to answer questions quickly and concisely, and the resultant self-doubt that can result in false confessions.

Have Anxiety and Taking a Polygraph? What You Can Do.

So, what, if anything, can an applicant with anxiety do? The first and most important thing is to tell the polygraph examiner about any formal anxiety diagnosis. Its not going to excuse you from the examination, but it may help provide context for elevated baseline physiology readings and clarity to your answers. (Note: I, and virtually all medical and legal experts consider the polygraph to be junk science. Unfortunately, you have to play the game if you want the job. For more on this, see my prior articles on the polygraph).

The second thing is to understand how your condition translates into the security setting – without researching how the polygraph machine works, which likely will result in a security clearance denial for perceived efforts to cheat the system (and probably just increase your anxiety anyway).

Overanalyzing is the Key to Failing the polygraph

Applicants should realize that the polygraph, and the security clearance process generally, is designed for the lowest common-denominator of applicant: someone with a high school diploma or GED who likely isn’t going to be inclined to over-think the questions. That’s not to say that intelligence requires a college degree; there are a lot of very smart people who never went to college. Its simply to point out that people who have advanced educations are more prone to over-analyze questions and look for hidden meanings. We lawyers are guilty of that, as are engineers, and people with anxiety.

Put most simply, polygraph examiners are looking for black-and-white answers, whereas people with anxiety aren’t wired for that. For example, instead of a simple “no” to a question about whether the applicant has ever divulged classified information to someone not authorized to receive it, an applicant with anxiety might start in their mind with “no” but before verbalizing that will engage in a mental process psychologists call “looping.” If we could listen-in on the internal conversation taking place it would sound something like this:

“No, I’ve never divulged classified information to someone not authorized to receive it. Well, I do talk with my wife about my day, but I don’t talk about anything classified. We’ve been married for twenty years though, and I must have inadvertently let something slip at some point. Maybe I did let something slip more than once, even though I can’t recall any specific instances and never intended to do that. Yes, I must have shared classified information with my wife who wasn’t authorized to receive it.”

In essence, what’s happening here is that the examinee is discarding his original (and correct) answer of “no” and convincing himself that he has, in fact, committed a crime without any real recollection of specific instances, much less an intent to do so. But because the polygraph examiner isn’t privy to that internal dialogue, he or she will only hear the final – and entirely speculative – answer, and treat it as an unambiguous admission of guilt.

Understanding the Polygraph Process with Anxiety in the mix

In some cases, even a formal anxiety diagnosis isn’t enough to overcome this dilemma. My experience has been that most polygraph examiners frankly lack the sophistication or interest to understand what’s really happening; they’re only interested in the damaging admissions they can extract. And when they have you on record, it can be difficult (although not impossible) to un-ring that bell.

People with anxiety can still make tremendously valuable contributions to our national security, and if your heart is set on a job that requires a polygraph examination, don’t let me dissuade you from pursuing it. Do, however, be realistic with yourself first on whether you are the type of person who will do well in a highly stressful and adversarial situation like a polygraph examination. If you know your anxiety will send you into fight-or-flight mode (perhaps resulting in the aforementioned looping and/or a false confession of misconduct that can kill your chances of any clearance, much less SCI access), you may wish to consider instead one of the myriad national security jobs and security clearances that don’t require completion of a polygraph.



[1] Most positions at intelligence community (IC) agencies and components require a Top Secret-SCI clearance with polygraph, but not all SCI billets outside the IC require a polygraph.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied.  Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at