Paranoia - What is Paranoia?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Having suspicions and worries regarding loved ones is normal to a certain extent. When these fears are exaggerated and not founded on any real basis, however, these notions are termed paranoia.

Symptoms of paranoia

Paranoia is typically characterized by three main features. These include:

  • Exaggerated fear that something bad will happen
  • Fear that the bad that is about to happen is caused by others
  • Lack of foundation for the above two features

People with paranoia may feel threatened by one or more person, by objects or even by an abstract idea. A person with paranoia may feel threatened in the following ways:

  • Fear that someone is trying to cause them physical harm or even kill them
  • Fear that someone is trying to cause physical or emotional harm by, for example, spreading rumours about them
  • Fear that someone is trying to steal from them or trick them into losing their money

Symptoms of paranoia or paranoid thoughts

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Fear
  • Distrust
  • Bitterness
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Depression
  • Fatigue (due to constant worry)

Types of paranoia

The severity of symptoms, which range from mild to severe distress, determine which type of paranoia a person has. Certain types of paranoia are common in the population such as worrying about a terrorist attack in your vicinity after hearing there has been an attack recently. While this type of paranoia may be distressing, it does not usually prevent someone from living their life normally.

More severe paranoia such as thinking someone is tracing your phone calls or trying to exert mind control can be extremely distressing and leave a person feeling, terrified, isolate and exhausted with worry.

Paranoia and other mental health conditions

Paranoia is commonly associated with other mental health conditions. Examples include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Delusional disorder: This describes when a person is preoccupied with delusional ideas about being harmed. For example, they may be convinced that someone is following them or trying to poison them.
  • Paranoid personality disorder: This is a form of personality disorder that typically develops during teenage years and progresses into adulthood. A person with paranoid personality disorder finds it difficult to trust others.
  • Paranoid schizophrenia: This is a type of schizophrenia characterized by extremely paranoid thoughts as well as oral and visual hallucinations.

Causes of paranoia

The cause of paranoia is unclear but is likely to be brought about by major life events that cause a sudden increase in stress. Psychiatric conditions and mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and phobias can also trigger paranoia.

Diagnosis and treatment

The first step that needs to be taken in order to treat paranoia is the individual recognising the fact that they are paranoid and being prepared to seek help. Sometimes paranoia is diagnosed as part of other mental health conditions. Treatment aims at reducing the distress caused by paranoia and improving the patient's overall wellbeing so they can feel more grounded in reality.

Lifestyle changes that are recommended include regular exercise, sleeping well and taking measures to reduce stress. Avoidance of certain drugs and alcohol can also help reduce paranoia as these can trigger paranoia.

A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behaviour therapy may also be prescribed. This therapy helps people examine and address any thinking patterns or attitudes that may alter their behaviour. Other types of talking therapy may include the family or groups of individuals with similar problems. Medications that are prescribed are generally targeted at any associated mental health conditions rather than at the paranoia itself.

Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc

Sources

  1. http://www.mind.org.uk/assets/0001/7310/Understanding_paranoia_2012.pdf
  2. http://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/Alzheimers_Caregiving_Tips_Hallucinations_Delusions_and_Paranoia.pdf
  3. http://www.mind.org.uk/mental_health_a-z/8024_paranoia

Last Updated: Oct 14, 2013

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