By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Paranoia comes in many shapes and sizes.
How paranoia looks depends on the group of people you’re looking at. Researchers who study paranoia believe it may have had an evolutionary advantage. Those who were too trusting did not survive. “It is important to ask why paranoia might be so common in the general population. One possible explanation is that paranoia is a trait that was selected and distributed in humans due to its adaptive value” (Ellett & Chadwick, 2003, 2007).
In many situations, it’s better to be suspicious and cautious, even if your wrong then to be trusting and end up harmed in some way. Being suspicious when in doubt kept our ancestors alive to reproduce. Trust issues seem to run on a continuum from mild suspicion to unhealthy, pathological paranoia. Recent research tells us that mild to moderate paranoia is a lot more common among nonclinical populations than has been recognized in the past. Most of these people who experience an episode of paranoia do not go on to develop a serious mental illness.
According to the Freeman brothers “paranoia is on the rise, fueled by disproportionate media coverage of the dangers we face from others; by increasing urbanization; and by a range of other social factors including fear of crime.”
Paranoia also depends on your viewpoint. If you have been the victim of violence or trusted when you shouldn’t have, you become less trusting. Groups who have historically suffered prejudice and violence, become more suspicious. Suspiciousness in women is likely to be diagnosed as anxiety. Wariness in men is more likely to suggest they will become violent and be diagnosed as some form of psychosis. Both Psychosis and Paranoia are much more likely to be diagnosed in males, particularly African-American males.
Definitions of paranoia.
Wikipedia defines paranoia as “an instinct or thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of delusion and irrationality. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself.”
Google defines paranoia as “a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.”
“Paranoia is deﬁned as false beliefs that harm is occurring to oneself which is intended by a persecutor (Freeman and Garety 2000).”
The meaning of the word paranoia has changed over time. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia from 1890 defines paranoia as, “a chronic form of insanity developing in a neuropsychopathic constitution, presenting systematized delusions of more or less definite scope, while in other directions there may appear a fair amount of mental health. The prognosis is extremely bad.
Today in the field of psychology, paranoia is treated as a personality characteristic that can fall along a scale from extremely mild and rare to very high and constant. Ways psychologists measure paranoia are by using the Paranoia Scale (Fenigstein and Vanable 1992) or the Paranoia Suspiciousness Questionnaire (Rawlings and Freeman 1997.) When studying personality characteristics, it’s important to differentiate between traits, how paranoid a person is generally, and state paranoia, how paranoid the person may be thinking, feeling, and acting, at the moment.
In common usage, today when most people say someone is “paranoid” they are describing someone with excessive or unwarranted fears and beliefs that others dislike them, are out to get them, or will betray them.
Paranoia along with excessive fear and suspiciousness are commonly associated with some of the more serious mental illnesses. Anyone with difficulty understanding what’s happening around them is likely to become fearful, suspicious, possibly even paranoid.
Counselors see many clients with excessive, unreasonable fears. When those fears interfere with everyday functioning, they need to be treated. How much fear is warranted depends on your point of view. When someone has experienced infidelity, the belief that their partner may be cheating again may be very reasonable. If you have been the victim of violence, a heightened wariness is understandable. Life experiences, from your earliest years to the present taught you whether to be trusting or suspicious. Having been neglected or experiencing bullying increases the chances you will see the world as hostile and people as unreliable.
If, as far as you know, your partner has never cheated, but you spend hours each day checking their cell phone or social media for signs they are cheating, if you follow them or demand to know where they are every moment of the day, it’s likely your fears are about you rather than about their behavior.
According to paranoidthoughts.com, “around a third of the population regularly has suspicious or paranoid thoughts. In fact, paranoia may be almost as common as depression or anxiety.”
Subclinical levels of paranoia are associated with the anxiety disorders, depression, and cognitive impairment. Excessive jealousy can become so severe that it needs to be treated as a “delusional disorder.”
Paranoia among people with substance use disorders.
There’s a significant presence of paranoid symptoms among people with a substance use disorder. Some substances increase the level of anxiety and cause paranoia. The substance-using lifestyle includes people who are untrustworthy and can result in traumatic experiences. Using illegal substances involves criminal activity. Telling whether extreme fearfulness and the beliefs that others are out to get is paranoia or reasonable is difficult when you have a substance use disorder. The belief that the police are following you and people are watching you may not be paranoia when you have a kilo of dope in the trunk of your car.
The way you think about yourself affects your risk of developing paranoia.
High self-esteem, feeling good about yourself, has been shown to reduce your risk of developing paranoia. Several other personality characteristics such as optimism and pessimism are also related. There is still the question of whether paranoia causes low self-esteem and pessimism or whether paranoia is the result of those personality characteristics.
In upcoming posts, we will talk about clinical, mental health disorders which may involve paranoia, some of the substance use disorders which involve paranoia, and those subclinical problems, which lie on a continuum between trust issues, suspiciousness, and diagnosable paranoia. We should also explore some of the personality characteristics which impact your level of trust issues, suspiciousness, and paranoia.
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