paranoia (noun): A mental health condition characterised by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically worked into an organised system. It may be an aspect of a chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia, in which the person loses touch with reality. An unjustified suspicion and mistrust of other people is a common component.
Synonyms: persecution complex, delusions, obsession, megalomania, monomania, psychosis
Everybody experiences suspicious or irrational thoughts from time to time. These thoughts are only classed as paranoid when they are exaggerated to the point where they impact on your life and (importantly) when there is no evidence that they are true, and yet you can’t shake them. And by the way: simply feeling that something is true doesn’t make it true.
There are three specific boxes that need to be ticked for what you are experiencing to be a paranoid thought, and they are:
1) The fear that something bad will happen
2) The belief that someone (or an external cause) will be responsible for this specific misfortune
3) And that these beliefs are actually unfounded in reality
Experiencing clinical paranoia can terrify a person so badly that it has a significant impact on their day-to-day life, wellbeing and relationships. If paranoia is allowed to ferment without outside assistance (such as from professional therapy or medication), you may continue to feel disturbed for an extended time, or even end up doing something that may negatively affect your life.
There are different types of harm that you may feel paranoid about: psychological, physical, emotional, financial, sexual or a combination. Thinking that somebody is bullying you, talking about you behind your back, trying to physically hurt you or even trying to kill you all falls under the umbrella of paranoia. It could be one person you feel threatened by, a group of people, an organisation, an event or even an object. But we reiterate that this is only paranoia if there is no PROOF.
Mild paranoid thoughts, such as thinking that people are laughing at you or judging you, are common. These types of thoughts rest much closer to anxiety than psychosis. More severe paranoid thoughts aren’t quite as common as anxiety, however. A person experiencing paranoia is likely to feel alarmed, isolated, exhausted and even outright terrified. Some severely paranoid thoughts can be classed as “persecutory delusions”, which means the person experiencing them feels they are being persecuted (oppressed).
Sometimes it can be difficult to identify whether you are experiencing a paranoid thought. Your thoughts and beliefs may seem irrational to some people, but that doesn’t automatically mean you have paranoia. For example, many cultures have beliefs about witchcraft or other things that may not be shared by the general Australian population, but this isn’t seen as unusual to the people who believe it. Unless such beliefs cause them to feel threatened and scared, they wouldn’t be considered to have paranoia. Similarly, what may be a paranoid thought for one person could be a rational reaction for another. This largely depends on the context of the thought, and your own life experiences. For example, if someone has a loving and supportive family, then feeling that a family member wants to hurt them may be considered irrational and paranoid. But if someone has had a difficult relationship with their family and been threatened by a relative in the past, feeling that a family member wants to hurt them may be a much more rational reaction. Similarly, if someone feels that they are being secretly spied on by the government, this may seem irrational and paranoid. However, if that person is a political refugee who came to this country after being persecuted by the government back in North Korea, it may be understandable.
The good news is that it’s possible to be treated for paranoia with medication and therapy. This might mean you’ll reach a point where you no longer have any paranoid thoughts at all, or you’ll learn coping strategies to prevent further distress. Not everybody with paranoia can be entirely rid of it, but just about everyone is capable of using effective coping strategies if they have the benefit of insight.
(Note from the author: I personally struggle with paranoia to this day, but with time and practice I’ve learned how to deal with it. Some of the following may help you, too)
What can help me with my paranoia?
There are certain ways to address your paranoia. Most of these are free, but some may involve time and effort.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol
Not using recreational drugs and/or alcohol will help you feel more in control of your thoughts and make it easier to rationalise your feelings. While we certainly wouldn’t encourage anybody to use mind-altering substances, people with psychotic issues should NEVER touch them for the sake of their own sanity and the physical safety of themselves and others. Tragedies happen when you combine drugs with mental health issues, especially with paranoid delusions. Not to be too alarmist about it, but people can die.
- Know thyself
If your paranoia is related to anxiety or stress, you might find mindfulness or meditation techniques helpful. Mindfulness is a way of paying more attention to the present moment and learning to focus on your own thoughts and feelings without being a slave to them. This can help improve your mental wellbeing, calm your feelings and stop you becoming overwhelmed.
- Look for patterns
Consider situations where you’ve experienced paranoid thoughts, and then figure out how the paranoia developed as a logical chain of events (but keep in mind that this progression may seem anything but “logical” in crystal-clear hindsight). This technique can help you to recognise patterns and indicate where and when you’ll have to do something to deal with your paranoia. In the case of a certain Panorama author, for instance, he’ll feel paranoid if strangers laugh after he walks past them. He deals with this paranoia by reasoning it out like this: “They don’t know me, I’m not doing anything silly, what are the odds they’re laughing at me? Not likely.” Plus, this guy is well aware that he has mental health issues, so he always has to remember that this is a big factor in how his perception can be distorted (and so on).
- Keep a diary
You might find it helpful to track your thoughts and feelings for a short time on paper. Doing this can help identify what might be triggering your paranoia. It can also be a good way of releasing negative thoughts. At the end of each day (or every few days) write down the thoughts that have been troubling you and make a note of how many times a day they come up. Try and look for patterns in the thoughts you’ve recorded. Give them a number from 1–10 to show how strongly you believed in them, and how distressing they were. As you build up a picture of this mental battlefield you’ll hopefully identify what’s triggering your paranoia. For example, you may be more likely to have paranoid thoughts after an argument, or when you are tired.
An example of paranoia
Here is an example of how something as simple as not receiving a promised phone call can lead to a “everyone hates me” variety of paranoia.
1. My brother said he’d call early on Saturday. He didn’t.
2. By 5pm he still hasn’t called.
3. He must be ignoring me.
4. It’s 9pm, and still no call – he must hate me.
5. None of my other family members have called me today. They ALL hate me.
6. I phoned a friend and they didn’t answer.
7. I’m convinced that no one likes me. I’m unlikable.
8. I’m worried that they’re all plotting together to make me upset. They’re probably sitting around somewhere, laughing at me.
9. I read some old emails and saw some double meanings I didn’t notice before.
10. I’m getting scared and suspicious.
11. I stayed awake most of the night thinking about this stuff.
Now comes the difficult part: challenging your paranoia. Once you’ve developed an awareness into the pattern of your thoughts and identified some triggers, you can start to challenge your thinking.
Belief: I feel that everyone hates me and they’re all working together to make me upset by ignoring me.
Evidence to defend your belief: My brother didn’t call me when he promised. My brother and other family members have missed my calls before. I don’t receive many phone calls or emails from people without having to prompt them. My friend didn’t answer his phone on three separate occasions today.
Evidence against your belief: My brother called the next day, and said he was really sorry that he hadn’t contacted me. He explained that he couldn’t find his phone charger. My dad called later on to ask if I wanted to go to dinner next week and a friend just emailed me an invitation to his birthday party. Also, I don’t send many emails or make many phone calls, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t receive many in return. After all, I’m just one part of other people’s lives, so it’s normal for them to be too busy to answer their phones or to think of me. Sometimes I don’t answer calls, and that doesn’t mean I hate that person! Finally, I know that my family and friends don’t know each other and therefore couldn’t be plotting together.
As you build the evidence against your paranoid thoughts, you might find it useful to keep some of the more helpful discoveries as notes on your mobile. This way you can refer to them next time if you start to feel anxious and paranoid. For example, the statement might say, “Sometimes I don’t answer calls and it doesn’t mean I hate that person.” Directly contradicting your paranoia can be difficult, especially if it’s become deeply entrenched over time.
Getting help: talking about your thoughts with someone
Talking about your thoughts with a close friend or family member can reduce your stress and help to further rationalise your paranoia. Hardships can become easier once you share them, like two people working together to carry a heavy weight.
On a more structured professional front, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be helpful in coping with paranoid thoughts, and can be learned from a book or directly from a mental health professional. If you are able to see a mental health professional (like a psychiatrist or psychologist), it might be a good idea to let them know why you believe the whole world is out to get you. Those guys are extensively trained to help us deal with such things.