In horror movies and thrillers, the main characters are often seen running through dark woods or carefully navigating dimly lit corridors. As they stealthily creep through the shadows, paranoia sets in and they vehemently look in all directions for signs of danger. In nearly every film, the main character has good reason for their paranoia, as frightening predators seem to lurk behind every corner. But, what happens when paranoia is present in everyday life and not warranted? How can one feel better when they are constantly vigilant of predators and situations that do not exist?
Paranoia occurs when one lacks trust in others, especially without justification or cause. Paranoia is fueled by irrational thoughts that will not go away and is perpetuated by powerful anxiety and fear. Paranoia is often accompanied by illogical thoughts that one is being threatened or targeted by an outside entity, even when there is no evidence to support these claims. A person with paranoia sees random occurrences as purposeful instead of as arbitrary or coincidental. Paranoia impacts many areas of a person’s functioning, including occupational, social, and educational settings.
Symptoms of paranoia can range in intensity, from mild to severe, and can arise from environmental, psychological, or biological factors. Paranoia may evolve from inconsistent and unstable environments, from trauma and abuse, from mistrustful relationships with primary caregivers, or from situations of discrimination. Sleep deprivation, increased stress, and social anxiety can also impact one’s ability to think clearly, thus prompting further thoughts of paranoia.
Paranoia can result from psychological disturbance, mental illness, or as part of a larger, more pervasive personality disorder. Paranoia is linked to a person’s tendency to evade responsibility by blaming others for problems and disappointments. Drug use, neurological issues, and memory loss are some other causes of paranoia.
If paranoia is causing significant distress and impairment, there are several ways to address symptoms and dysfunction. Treatment can include psychotherapy and medication, although individuals with paranoia often have difficulty trusting physicians and mental health practitioners. Once a trusting relationship is formed, psychotherapy can assist individuals to understand and gain insight into their condition. Treatment can help an individual learn coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and to dispel irrational thinking.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a customary form of treatment for paranoia. This form of treatment asserts that changing irrational thoughts will alter a person’s feelings and behaviors. Thus, challenging irrational thoughts will assist an individual to alleviate feelings of anxiety and fear. Treatment allows one to challenge irrational thoughts and to conduct reality testing to see if there is any truth to their claims.
If paranoia is linked to a more serious mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia or delusional disorder, a psychiatrist may prescribe an anti-psychotic medication to help an individual reduce paranoid thoughts. In less severe forms of paranoia, a psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant to help an individual to reduce anxiety or depression linked to the paranoia.
Suspense and fear are embroidered into the fabric of horror movies and thrillers. Accompanied with foreboding music, main characters will continually assess their surroundings for perceived threats and danger. These characters are usually truly in peril, making their paranoia and fear warranted. Contrarily, outside of the movies, individuals with symptoms of paranoia have no evidence to support their fears. The belief that they are being targeted or persecuted fails to have any basis in reality. Paranoia causes significant amounts of distress and impairment and greatly impacts a person’s normal, everyday functioning. However, psychotherapy, medication, and dispelling irrational thoughts are all effective coping mechanisms to help a person to successfully combat symptoms of paranoia.
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor and employed as a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in the mental health field and has worked in a wide array of settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy has worked with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the resistant adolescent population. Tracy enjoys facilitating groups, coming up with creative interventions, and is interested in creative art therapies, such as sand tray, play therapy, and psychodrama.