Most people want to avoid failure, and some may fear it to an extent, especially when the stakes are high. However, atychiphobia is an extreme fear of failure that affects a person’s ability to function in daily life.
Atychiphobia is not a distinct medical diagnosis. Instead, a doctor may diagnose someone as having
A fear of failure is associated with unhelpful behaviors, such as procrastination, which is when someone delays necessary tasks. In this way, a fear of failure actually makes it more difficult for someone to reach their goals.
In this article, we look at the fear of failure in more detail, including the signs and symptoms and how to tell what is typical versus what is not. We also explore how healthcare professionals diagnose and treat phobias and how atychiphobia relates to other types of anxiety.
A person has a fear of failure when they worry that their plan, project, or goal will not succeed. Many people have these fears, especially those who live or work in high pressure environments.
To a certain extent, a fear of failure may motivate people to take positive steps to ensure that they do not fail. For example, it may prompt a student to make a study schedule to help them complete all their work on time.
However, a fear of failure can also make it difficult to make good decisions. For example, a 2020 study found a correlation between students’ fear of failure and their tendency to procrastinate.
When a fear of failure is extreme and disproportionate to the situation, it becomes a phobia. The technical term for a phobia of failing is atychiphobia.
People with a fear of failure may experience symptoms of stress or anxiety in certain situations. These symptoms include:
- a faster heart rate
- faster, shallower breathing
- muscle tension
A person will only meet the diagnostic criteria for specific phobia if the fear:
- has a specific trigger
- always occurs when someone encounters that trigger
- causes someone to avoid the trigger or endure it with intense anxiety
- impairs how someone functions in social situations, at work, and in other areas of their life
- is unlikely to be due to another mental health condition
6 months or longer
For example, a person may have atychiphobia if they are:
- feeling immediately afraid when thinking about the possibility of failure, even if the task is easy or the consequences of failure are mild
- avoiding all situations in which they could fail, even if failure is unlikely or it means they miss out on opportunities
- finding it hard to maintain relationships, progress in their career, or participate in hobbies they enjoy
A fear of failure is very common in many different situations, and lots of people experience it from time to time. It is especially common in situations in which the cost of failure is high, or success offers significant rewards.
Due to this, some individuals may find it difficult to determine whether they have a true phobia. Here are some differences between typical fear and phobias:
|only occurs in some situations||consistent and pervasive across many situations|
|fairly proportionate to the risks involved||disproportionate to the risks involved|
|does not occupy someone’s mind when the situation is over||preoccupying, potentially taking up a lot of attention|
|can motivate someone to take productive action, such as studying||associated with counterproductive behaviors, such as avoidance and procrastination|
|has a relatively low impact on someone’s relationships, grades, or career||has a greater effect on a person’s relationships, grades, or career|
Researchers do not fully understand how phobias develop or why they affect some people and not others. Some factors that may increase the risk of atychiphobia include:
- Past experiences: If someone has experienced a very distressing failure in the past, they may develop a fear of failing in the future.
- Teaching styles: Certain approaches to teaching may increase the fear of failure. For example, a 2019 study of athletes found that a controlling style of coaching was positively correlated with a fear of failure, whereas coaching that encouraged autonomy was not.
- Modeling: This term refers to when children adopt the behaviors of others. For example, if a child sees their parent or caregiver reacting fearfully to a spider, they may learn that spiders are scary, leading them to develop arachnophobia. This could
potentiallyhappen with a fear of failure, too. A child whose parent or caregiver fears failure may develop atychiphobia.
- Low self-confidence: People who feel as though they are not good enough may be more likely to have a fear of failure. A 2018 study involving more than 1,000 undergraduate students in China found that those who procrastinated the most were also more likely to have a higher fear of failure, a lower level of self-esteem, or both.
Doctors diagnose specific phobias based on someone’s symptoms. A mental health professional will ask someone a series of questions to understand their symptoms and the impact that they have on daily life. They may also try to rule out other potential explanations.
If someone meets the criteria for specific phobia, the mental health professional will likely recommend treatment.
Specific phobia treatment focuses on helping a person become comfortable with the thing they fear. For someone with atychiphobia, this could be either failure itself or the conditions that make them fear failure, such as competition or workplace pressure.
The treatment usually involves a form of therapy. Medication may also be helpful for controlling the symptoms while someone undergoes treatment. However, drugs do not treat the root cause of the fear.
Various types of therapy may help, including:
This therapy is one of the main treatments for specific phobia. It works by slowly and gradually exposing a person to the thing they fear. The aim is for the person to learn that it will not hurt them and that they can cope with it.
This approach places someone in a state of focused relaxation, known as hypnosis. Hypnosis makes a person more receptive to new ideas. The therapist then suggests new thoughts, with the aim of changing someone’s beliefs and behaviors.
There is limited research on hypnotherapy as a phobia treatment, and scientists do not entirely understand how it works.
If someone has a fear of failure along with other symptoms, they may have a different type of disorder. Some other conditions that may cause this symptom include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People who experience persistent anxiety about many things may have GAD. They may feel a general sense of worry alongside physical symptoms, such as tension and an elevated heart rate.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): This condition causes persistent, intrusive thoughts that scare someone.
Common themesinclude security and contamination, but a person could also have intrusive thoughts about failure. Often, people with OCD feel the need to engage in compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly checking things, to ease their anxiety.
- Social anxiety disorder: If a person’s fear of failure centers more around social situations or how others perceive them, they may have social anxiety. For example, a person may fear public speaking or taking part in a competition because they are afraid of how others may judge their failure rather than being afraid of the failure itself.
- Depression: Feelings of guilt, helplessness, and low self-worth are
common featuresof depression. These feelings may sometimes tie into a fear of failure. Other possible symptoms include a lack of energy or motivation, persistent low mood, crying or anger, and sleeping more or less than usual.
As a fear of failure can relate to various conditions, it is important to speak with a mental health professional for a diagnosis, if possible.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
It is common for people to experience a fear of failure on occasion, especially when they perceive that there is a lot to lose if they do not succeed. If the fear starts to affect someone’s ability to function or inhibits their personal growth, this may indicate atychiphobia. Doctors do not consider atychiphobia to be a distinct medical diagnosis, instead grouping it with other specific phobias.
Many people respond well to phobia treatment. A therapist can make a diagnosis and suggest approaches to take. If a person is concerned that their fear of failure is affecting their ability to study, work, socialize, or reach their goals, they should speak with a mental health professional.