Ataxophobia (Fear of Untidiness or Disorder)

Overview

What is ataxophobia?

Ataxophobia is an extreme fear of untidiness or disorder. People with ataxophobia feel intense distress in untidy settings. They may experience anxiety just thinking about being in a situation where disorder or messiness surrounds them.

Ataxophobia goes beyond being a “neat freak.” The fear of untidiness is a specific phobia. Specific phobias are irrational fears of specific situations, interactions, animals or people. Typically, people with specific phobias experience fear that exceeds any actual threat. They often know the fear is extreme but have trouble controlling it.

Who might get ataxophobia?

The fear of disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are closely linked. OCD causes people to experience repetitive or unwanted thoughts or obsessions. It can lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). You may constantly tidy up your surroundings or want your environment to be as clean as possible.

Many people with ataxophobia develop OCD. Others may have an existing OCD diagnosis when they develop ataxophobia.

How common is ataxophobia?

Experts don’t know exactly how many people have ataxophobia. But specific phobias are relatively common. More than 1 in 10 adults will experience a specific phobia at some point in their lifetime. Specific phobias are twice as common in people assigned female at birth (AFAB) as in people assigned male at birth (AMAB).

Symptoms and Causes

What causes ataxophobia?

There’s no clear cause of ataxophobia. You’re more likely to have ataxophobia if you have:

  • Another anxiety disorder, such as OCD.
  • Family history of ataxophobia or other anxiety disorders.
  • History of trauma or negative experiences associated with untidiness.

What are the symptoms of ataxophobia?

Like other phobias, the primary symptom of ataxophobia is irrational fear or anxiety. Extreme anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, including:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is ataxophobia diagnosed?

To diagnose ataxophobia, your healthcare provider may ask you specific questions about symptoms. Sometimes, anxiety symptoms are related to another mental health diagnosis and not a specific phobia.

Your healthcare provider may ask:

  • What triggers anxiety symptoms.
  • How long symptoms last.
  • Whether you go to extreme lengths to avoid messiness or disorder.
  • If you experience dread or distress when you know you’ll be in a messy setting.

Management and Treatment

How is ataxophobia treated?

Your healthcare provider may use similar treatment approaches for ataxophobia as for other specific phobias, including:

  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy involves gradually introducing a specific fear into your life. For example, you may look at pictures of disorganization or asymmetrical spaces. Eventually, you may practice staying calm in a disordered environment.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Sometimes called talk therapy, CBT can occur in a group setting or one-on-one with a therapist. The goal of CBT is to help you identify irrational thought patterns. Then you retrain your brain to think more rational thoughts.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This type of therapy is effective for people who’ve experienced trauma. It involves focusing on traumatic memories while being stimulated by specific rhythmic movements. EMDR can help you process a traumatic event without being overwhelmed by the memory.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of CBT that combines talk therapy with specific coping skills. The goal is to help you deal with stress or anxiety in healthier ways and regulate your emotions better.
  • Medication: Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to prevent panic attacks (sudden rushes of anxiety that cause physical symptoms).
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): MBSR is a structured program to help you learn mindfulness techniques. It uses a combination of yoga and meditation practices to help you address the thoughts that increase stress.
  • Stress management techniques: You may learn coping techniques that decrease anxiety symptoms. For example, you may practice deep breathing or meditation. Exercising aerobically, such as running in place, may also lessen symptoms when you feel a panic attack starting.

If ataxophobia is the result of another diagnosis like OCD, your treatment may also include:

Prevention

Are there other conditions that put me at risk of ataxophobia?

Yes. You’re more likely to develop ataxophobia if you have:

Outlook / Prognosis

Are there long-term effects of ataxophobia?

With treatment, many people manage ataxophobia symptoms well. Without treatment, ataxophobia can interfere with your quality of life. For example, a fear of disorder may cause you to stay home more than usual or avoid public spaces. The phobia may increase your risk of:

  • Depression, anxiety or other mood disorders.
  • Social isolation.
  • Substance use disorder, including misuse of drugs and alcohol.

Living With

What else should I ask my doctor?

You might want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What’s the most likely cause of ataxophobia?
  • Does the fear of disorder relate to another mental health diagnosis?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What might happen if I don’t get treatment?
  • What are the chances that I will overcome ataxophobia?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Ataxophobia is the extreme fear of disorder or untidiness. It’s closely linked to OCD. People with ataxophobia may clean frequently, worry about being in messy spaces or obsess over symmetry. Ataxophobia often has no clear cause. But you may be more likely to develop the phobia if you have a family member with ataxophobia or another anxiety disorder. Treatment may include therapy, medication or stress management techniques.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/18/2021.

References

  • Merck Manual (Consumer Version). Specific Phobic Disorders. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/anxiety-and-stress-related-disorders/specific-phobic-disorders) Accessed 11/18/2021.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (http://nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd) Accessed 11/18/2021.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Specific Phobia. (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/specific-phobia) Accessed 11/18/2021.

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