Everyone wonders about other people from time to time: Are they talking about me? Did she lie to me? Is he watching me? You might call these thoughts paranoid because some part of you knows they’re unrealistic or at least probably untrue.
Clinical paranoia is something more. It’s a rare mental health condition where you believe others are unfair, lying, or actively trying to harm you, even when there’s no proof. You don’t think you’re paranoid at all because, as the old saying goes, “It isn’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you.”
This is a pretty good test: If you think your thoughts are paranoid, you’re probably not clinically paranoid, just a bit anxious. Still, even when you know your concerns aren’t based in reality, they can be troubling if they happen too often.
Reasons You Might Feel Paranoid
Too Little Sleep
A single restless night won’t likely cause paranoid thoughts. But if you often go without sleep, it can start to take a toll. You might not think as clearly, and you’re more likely to clash with others or misunderstand them. It may start to look like others are purposely working against you when they’re just behaving as usual. If you’re already prone to mental illness and you go without sleep for long enough, you could even start to see and hear things that aren’t there (hallucinations).
Adults should shoot for 7-9 hours a night to stay alert and mentally healthy.
When the tension ratchets up in your life, you could start to feel more suspicious of other people. And the stress doesn’t have to be something negative like illness or job loss. Even a happy occasion, like a wedding, can create a kind of stress that brings out paranoid thoughts along with the joy.
To help ease the tension you can:
It’s normal to be anxious from time to time, especially if you’re going through something hard like losing a loved one. In some cases, it can lead to thoughts you might call paranoid.
Some people feel this way in larger groups of people. Perhaps you worry that others will judge the things you say or the way you dress or behave. You might walk into a party by yourself and immediately think, “Everyone is wondering why I’m alone.”
Some call this paranoid, but we all have thoughts like this from time to time. Just because you’re worried that people might be talking about you doesn’t mean you have a mental illness. Real, or clinical, paranoia happens when you’re absolutely convinced of it, even when facts prove otherwise.
If your anxiety isn’t linked to anything obvious and it never seems to get better or go away, you may need to talk to a doctor about it.
One condition, paranoid personality disorder, can make it hard to trust others. It can cause negative thoughts about people that just aren’t true, like “They don’t like me,” or “They’re making fun of me,” or even “They’re plotting against me.” In some cases, no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise. This can lead to true clinical paranoia. Though you might not believe every unrealistic thought that enters your head, you believe some of them.
Schizophrenia, another serious disorder, can make it hard to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. Typically, you simply don’t know when your thoughts have become paranoid. Friends, loved ones, or medical professionals often have to point it out and try and help you get treatment.
Borderline personality disorder, in which you have fast emotional swings where you can worship someone one moment and hate them the next, can also cause paranoid thoughts and even full-blown clinical paranoia in some people.
Just because you feel paranoid about others from time to time, doesn’t mean you have a psychiatric disorder. The fact that you’re aware that your thoughts are not logical or reasonable could be a sign of good mental health. Still, if it happens all the time or starts to get in the way of your home or work life, consider talking to your doctor or a mental health care provider.
Drugs like marijuana and hallucinogens (LSD, psychotropic mushrooms) have chemicals that make some people paranoid for short periods. Once the chemicals leave your system, the paranoia goes away too. Days or weeks of intense alcohol abuse also can cause short-term paranoia, and over the long term, it can lead to more consistent paranoia and even hallucinations.
Drugs also can take minor symptoms of paranoia-linked anxiety or depression and make them much worse. If you’re prone to mental illness, they might even trigger a psychiatric disorder with true clinical paranoia as a symptom.
Alcohol can also worsen paranoia. Plus, it makes us less inhibited, which makes it harder to control these feelings.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, which are more likely as you age, can change your brain in ways that make you more suspicious of others. You might notice that a loved one with dementia starts to hide things like jewelry or money, or becomes convinced that people have bad intentions toward them. This is part of the disease. Their doctor might be able to help you manage these symptoms.
How to Ease Your Mind
If you or someone you love seems to be losing touch with reality, a doctor or mental health professional is the best place to start. But if you can still tell that your thoughts aren’t reasonable, there are things you can do to help.
After that, believe it or not, it can help to talk to yourself about paranoid thoughts. Of course, this only works while you can still tell that your thoughts are not reasonable. Keep it realistic. Instead of thinking to yourself “I’m crazy,” or “I’m paranoid,” try something like: “I’m worried about something that’s highly unlikely to be true.”
Even if you don’t have a mental illness, if your paranoid or irrational thoughts get in the way of doing things you want to do, talk to a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. It may be that talk therapy or some kind of medication could help you feel better.