It sometimes seems as if the one thing that unites the diverse peoples of the world is our fear of one another. Worries about other people are so common that they seem to be an essential - if unwelcome - part of what it means to be human.
The focus of this website is not on justified anxieties about others, but rather on exaggerated or unfounded fears - fears for which there is little or no convincing evidence. Exaggerated worries about others don't help us stay safe but instead can bring all manner of distress.
What is paranoia?
We could have called this section: What are fears about others? We could also have titled it: What are paranoid feelings? Or: What are persecutory beliefs? Some people use the terms delusional thoughts or, for severe instances, persecutory delusions. The feelings discussed in this website, then, go by a variety of names. Partly this is because paranoia is a term that covers a wide spectrum of experiences. What we mean is:
These fears normally contain certain elements: a perpetrator, a type of threat, and a reason. We can suspect absolutely anyone of wanting to do us harm. Often the perpetrator is a neighbour, stranger, work colleague or family member. Occasionally it may be government organisations or spirits. Sometimes the identity of the person trying to cause the harm is unknown. The type of harm varies too. But typically the fear is of physical, psychological, social or financial harm. Why do people think others are targeting them for harm? Sometimes there's a feeling of simply being a victim, sometimes it is suspected that we're at risk because of who we are, and sometimes it because we think the threat is provoked by something we've done.
How can we tell whether our suspicious thoughts are justified?
How can we tell whether our worries are justified or not? Well, it's not always easy. If you're struggling to decide whether your suspicious thoughts are justified, ask yourself the following questions:
There are no hard and fast rules for deciding for certain whether a worry is realistic. But by asking yourself these questions you can determine the probability of the suspicion being justified.
The probability that your fears are unrealistic increases the more you feel that:
What are the causes of paranoia?
Research has identified five main factors involved in the occurrence of suspicious thoughts. All five factors are very common - all of us will have experienced at least some of them. What's important though is the way they combine. Suspicious thoughts are caused by a combination of some or all of these five factors:
How common is paranoia?
Until very recently - the last 15 to 20 years in fact - no one suspected just how many people had paranoid thoughts. But several research projects have now lifted the lid - and the results are striking. Here are just a few statistics from some of those research projects.
Look after yourself. We're more likely to be troubled by paranoia if we're tired or run-down or very stressed. So make sure you eat healthily, get plenty of good-quality sleep, and exercise regularly. Make time too for things you enjoy: the more positive activities you have in your life, the less scope there'll be for paranoia to take hold.
Drinking too much, and using illicit drugs, can sometimes trigger paranoid thoughts. If you think they may be a factor in your paranoia, cut back or stop completely.
Consider the pros and cons. As we've seen, underlying paranoia is a fundamental decision about whether or not to trust other people. As a device to help you explore your own approach to this issue, make a list of the pros and cons of both trusting people and mistrusting them. Have you got the balance right, do you think? Would you like to be less mistrustful? Are there experiences from your past that might be having too great an influence on how you see people now
Share your fears. We know that people who don't talk about their paranoid thoughts generally find them more upsetting. So confide in someone you trust. Getting another perspective on your worries can be really helpful.
Get to know your paranoia. Like all problems, it's much easier to cope with our paranoid thoughts if we have a clear picture of them. So for the next seven days keep a diary of your paranoid thoughts - what they are, when they occur, and what might trigger them.
You may well find that particular situations tend to spark your paranoia (perhaps being very anxious or angry or bored, for example). And that will give you the chance to think how you can prevent these situations occurring, or at least how to deal with them better.
Incidentally, one of the great benefits of keeping a diary is that it gets your paranoid thoughts out of your head and onto paper. For many people, that can be a huge relief, and a terrific way of putting some distance between themselves and their paranoia.
Manage your worry. Worry is a very common reaction to paranoid thoughts. People fret about the harm they think other people intend towards them, and sometimes they also worry about what having these thoughts might mean (for example, that they're going mad). But the more we worry, the more anxious and fearful we become. Worry feeds on worry.
So we need to learn to manage our worry. One very useful technique is to save up all your worrying for one half-hour session every day: your worry period. And instead of worrying, try focusing your energy on solving the problem that's troubling you.
Challenge your paranoid thoughts. Choose a suspicious thought from your paranoia diary, and weigh up the evidence for and against it. Ask yourself these questions:
Test out your thoughts. Paranoia can make people so anxious and afraid that they change their behaviour, avoiding the situations that trigger their fears. But this only reinforces their paranoia, because it robs them of the chance to discover whether or not their fears are justified.
Testing out your paranoid thoughts involves actively seeking out the situations you're afraid of. That can be pretty nerve-wracking, so you need to go carefully. Draw up a list of tasks you find difficult and start with the relatively easy ones. Once you're comfortable with those, gradually work your way up to the more difficult tasks.
Incidentally, don't put yourself in situations where you're likely to be at real risk. You may be worried about going out alone, for instance, but don't test this by going into a dangerous neighbourhood at night. Concentrate on activities that most people would find reasonable and where you think your suspicious thoughts are probably exaggerated.
Let go of your paranoid thoughts. We're bound to have suspicious thoughts from time to time. It's unrealistic to think we can put a complete stop to them, but we can improve the way we deal with these thoughts when they do occur.
The trick is not to focus on them, to develop what's known as a mindful attitude. Don't fight your thoughts and don't spend time thinking about them. Try to be detached. Watch the thought come to you, remind yourself that it doesn't matter, and let it go off into the distance. Concentrate on what you're doing, rather than what you're thinking.
People often find it helps to repeat an encouraging phrase to themselves, for example "They're only thoughts - they don't matter"; "Keep going - you're doing really well"; "These thoughts don't scare me. I can cope."
Watch Dr Daniel Freeman describe a recent research study that reveals the extent of paranoia in the general public.
This film was made by the Wellcome Trust, an independent charity supporting research into human and animal health.
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