What is Ataxophobia? (An Overview)

In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatments of Ataxophobia. 

An intense fear of untidiness or disorder is called Ataxophobia. It is a type of specific phobia which comes under the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V. 

Someone suffering from it experiences extreme anxiety when exposed to untidy places or situations.

Even the thought of messiness can instigate anxiety. If one’s condition worsens, panic attacks can follow which might require hospitalization. 

People who are perfectionists or like things being tidy get angry or upset if the place they are in is messy.

Normally, one will try to keep their surroundings neat and clean so they don’t misplace stuff or the area looks presentable. 

However, people who suffer from Ataxophobia get terrified at the thought or sight of untidy, messy things/places.

They are unable to control their anxiety, which is too severe. Thus, end up avoiding untidiness. 

This avoidance is repeated by the individual because of the pleasant feelings it produces by eliminating anxiety.

This repetition maintains one’s fear because it assures them that untidiness/disorder is to be feared of. 

According to the DSM-V, anxiety and avoidance affects one’s social and occupational functioning.

For example, they will excessively arrange and re order things. One will spend most of his time keeping things in place.

They will avoid going to parties or places they fear might be untidy. 

A child will refrain from going to school because maybe he fears the messy playground during recess time and or because children’s untidy behavior in classrooms. 

Ataxophobia is very closely linked to Obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is because one gets obsessed over arranging things and the repeated acts of avoidance turn into compulsions.

Therefore, someone suffering Ataxophobia is very likely to develop OCD. 

Ataxophobia is an irrational fear of untidiness. Someone suffering from it will experience extreme anxiety when exposed to messy things or disorder. 

Symptoms of Ataxophobia 

Like in the case of all other specific phobias, Ataxophobia too has anxiety as its focal symptom.

Individuals suffering from an irrational fear of untidiness or disorder suffer from extreme anxiety which, as mentioned earlier, can result in one having panic attacks. 

When one undergoes extreme anxiety, the body experiences other physiological symptoms as well. Such as increased heart rate or palpitations. 

When the sufferer thinks about his fear stimuli, he goes into flight or fight mode because of an adrenaline rush.

In this state, the body’s physiological responses help one make decisions when in fear causing situations.

They either decide to escape the situation (flight)-faint or suffer from panic attacks or stay and combat their fear (fight)-by taking counterproductive actions.

Sufferers of Ataxophobia experience symptoms in different ways. One might have more severe symptoms than the other, based on their past experiences and intensity of the phobia.

Though, as the DSM-5 suggests, one must experience anxiety lasting for at least 6-months.  

Symptoms one experiences in Ataxophobia are:

  • Excessive anxiety when exposed to untidiness 
  • Excessive anxiety when thinking about untidiness 
  • Inability to manage anxiety 
  • Excessive urge to arrange or order things 
  • Full-blown panic attacks 
  • Avoiding situations where one fears he might encounter untidiness 
  • Increased heart beat 
  • Breathlessness 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Nausea 
  • Feelings of dizziness/fainting 
  • Feeling depressed 
  • Fear of an impending doom 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Tremors 
  • Hot/cold flashes 
  • Butterflies in the stomach 
  • Drying up of the mouth 
  • Disorientation 
  • Migraine 
  • Insomnia 

For one to be diagnosed with Ataxophobia, a person should experience at least 3-5 of these symptoms (including anxiety). 

Causes of Ataxophobia 

Like every other specific phobia, Ataxophobia is a result of either genetics or a past traumatic experience. 

Someone who has a family history of anxiety disorders or specific phobias has a higher chance of developing Ataxophobia than someone who doesn’t.

This is because they are genetically predisposed to develop it.  

Genes and neurotransmitters also play a significant role in this genetic predisposition. 

This genetic tendency to develop a mental disorder/specific phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship.

According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Ataxophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear of untidiness or disorder. 

Ataxophobia may be the result of a need to gain control over situations.

The lives of these people are manipulated by an authority figure, therefore, to exert their discipline over things around them they indulge in placing things orderly or indulging in excessive cleaning.

People with Ataxophobia will have compulsion to clean or perform cleaning rituals so that they feel in control. 

When they cannot keep up with these things, they feel as if their life is falling apart.

Additionally, this can be a result of learned behaviour too.

Someone whose parents had a habit of arranging things or keeping them in order can develop Ataxophobia by learning to act this way through imitation. 

Also, if a sufferer had strict parents who scolded him for making a mess, or even beated him.

He can associate those beatings with untidiness and therefore, get obsessive about cleaning and arranging. This causes them to fear disorder. 

Treatment of Ataxophobia 

Ataxophobia, like all other specific phobias, has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it.

Like all the other specific phobias, Ataxophobia is treated by a number of different therapies including, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lower downs the anxiety or other physical symptoms. 

• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 

It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.

Ataxophobia is defined as the irrational fear of untidiness/disorder. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones. 

The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about their fear stimuli.

Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts. 

The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation.

The ABCD stands for: 

i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.

ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.

iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought 

iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to        dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.

This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.  

• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 

MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions.

Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions. Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.

In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process.

This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing. 

For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.

• Exposure Therapy

It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Ataxophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia).

In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his fear over a certain span of time.

To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture of an untidy table for example.

As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery can be used to take the treatment a step further.

In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he is in an untidy room.

During this process of imagery, one actually feels that he’s in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.

 Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious, clears this step of the therapy, he is then exposed to a real untidy, messy place. 

While the patient is being exposed to different levels of fear during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises.

These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear causing situation.

This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to their fear stimuli.

Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.

However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of untidiness/disorder by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.


This another form of treatment used with patients suffering from specific phobia or anxiety disorders.  It is used with patients who know the cause of their phobia. 

First, the therapist collects the patients’ history of different fears. They then identify the real cause of the particular fear/phobia the patient has. 

They then discuss any new/latest event that triggered their anxiety and fear in the past few weeks.

People coming with specific phobias are told to imagine their distress causing stimuli. 

The therapist then works with the individual in order for them to overcome their fear. In the case of Ataxophobia, the patient will be advised on how to overcome his fear of untidiness.

They do this by creating a positive imagery for the patients’ feared stimuli.

• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) 

This is another effective therapy used to treat Ataxophobia. It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients suffering from this type of specific phobia.

Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6-months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group). 

            i.Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts.

The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling.

Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.

          ii.Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts.

Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment. This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then. 

For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the wind around them, making use of their auditory sense. 

         iii.The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills. This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed.

Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse.

Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem.

• Yoga/Meditation 

They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Ataxophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people.

Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while the person is in a particular yoga posture.

Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.

Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit from any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga.

The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts about their fear stimuli. 

• Drug Therapy 

Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Ataxophobia.

Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken. 

This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic.

However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation. 

Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:

                      i.  Antidepressant Drugs

These drugs, as the name suggests don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias.

Medicines like Paxil reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm. They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.

                      ii.Anti-anxiety Drugs

Medicines like Klonopin are anti-anxiety drugs.

They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers their anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.

Whether the cause of Ataxophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1) Do I have Ataxophobia? 

To be diagnosed with Ataxophobia, one needs to have excessive anxiety lasting for at least 6-months, panic attacks, increased heart rate and other physiological symptoms. 

Q2) How is Ataxophobia treated? 

Like all other specific phobias, Ataxophobia is treated using CBT, DBT and or medicinal drugs. 

Q3) What causes Ataxophobia? 

A genetic predisposition with the right environmental trigger event can cause Ataxophobia. 


  • https://psychtimes.com/ataxophobia-fear-of-disorder-or-untidiness/
  • https://fearof.org/ataxophobia/
  • https://common-phobias.com/ataxo/phobia.htm
  • https://www.rightdiagnosis.com/a/ataxophobia/intro.htm

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