Anxiety, like any other emotion, falls on a spectrum; there are varying intensities of the feeling, and, depending on the context or situation, it can endure for any given length of time. Everyone feels anxious now and then, say, before an interview or while preparing to go on a blind date. But feeling anxious all the time is another story altogether. Anxious and fearful, that is.
Chronic, intense fear and anxiety manifested as irrational thoughts regarding personal threat, persecution, or conspiracy is psychologically defined as paranoia.
Paranoia is a mental health issue that has a significant impact on day to day life. It is most often the central feature of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder, and schizoaffective disorder, but it can also occur in other mental disorders such as Bipolar Disorder.
When a person experiences paranoia or delusions, but no other symptoms, like hearing or seeing things that aren’t there, they might have what is called a delusional disorder. Because only thoughts are impacted, a person with delusional disorder can usually work and function in everyday life. However, their lives may be limited and isolated.
About 1-2% of the population has severe paranoia. Because the sufferers are so convinced that others are deliberately trying to harm or persecute them in some way, it can become so debilitating that they may be unable to leave their homes.
Paranoia can manifest into delusions: when irrational thoughts and beliefs become so fixed that nothing – including evidence to the contrary – can convince a person that what they believe or are worried about is not true.
A couple of months ago, I began to have paranoid thoughts that went unchecked. They quickly snowballed into delusions, and within a month, it had triggered several mixed episodes with psychosis. I became entirely convinced that law enforcement was after me, were searching for me, and had been watching my house for weeks. In my mind, every helicopter in the sky was part of a search unit, every citizen on their cell phone was a collaborator, and none of my neighbors were to be trusted. My delusions, or irrational beliefs, became so strong that during psychosis I was hearing, seeing, and even smelling things that were not there.
For discrete blocks of time I’d hear knocking, see flashlights, hear police radio chatter, and I even summoned some sort of body heat sensory device. I hid, curled in the tightest ball possible on the bathroom floor in my pitch-black house, with the air-conditioning and fans turned off, so as not to give away my presence. I feel only half-foolish typing it all because trying to explain a paranoid delusion is kind of like explaining a terrifying nightmare to someone. When you recall it out loud, it just sounds silly, but when you were trapped there, in your nightmare, in your mind. That is paranoia, that is psychosis.
I was entirely disabled during my episodes. I could not be convinced that I was safe from any kind of persecution or hunt. I could not be alone and I did not feel secure in my house. It took about a month’s worth of antipsychotic medication, along with my other medication protocol and therapies, to finally convince me otherwise.
When paranoia begins to interfere with your daily activities, you should consult your doctor or mental health professional. There is a marked difference between feeling worried or anxious about something and feeling paranoid. Feeling paranoid is akin to feeling like an animal that’s being hunted. It’s a fear that grips your throat and claws inside your chest.
Results from a recent study at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor revealed that “too much dopamine in the rear of the nucleus accumbens – which is linked to dread – may at least be partly responsible for the paranoia that many schizophrenia patients experience,” study co-author Kent Berridge says. “Some researchers have thought that dopamine may drive paranoia in schizophrenics,” he adds. “The results are consistent with that idea.”
This discovery is a step in the right direction for continued improvements in anti-psychotic medication for the treatment of psychosis and paranoia symptoms. Other ways paranoia can be treated include, but are not limited to psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, exercise, changes in diet, and nutritional supplements.
First and foremost though, is to offer understanding and support. Mental illness stigma perpetuates shame and causes sufferers to be disinclined to seek help. If we are mutually supportive of one another in our journey, we can reach wellness together. Committing to treatment protocols requires an enduring frame of mind. Support and compassion are key in breaking the barriers of mental illness stigma.
Crew, Bec. “Study Finds People With Schizophrenia Have Different Throat Bacteria.” Science Alert. ScienceAlert Pty Ltd., 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016. http://www.sciencealert.com/study-finds-people-with-schizophrenia-have-different-throat-bacteria
“Delusional Disorder.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/delusional-disorder
Hadhazy, Adam. “Fear Factor: Dopamine May Fear Dread, Too.” Scientific American. Nature America Inc., 14 July 2008. Web. 11 Aug. 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fear-factor-dopamine/
Martel, Janelle. “Paranoid Personality Disorder.” Healthline. Healthline Media, 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016. http://www.healthline.com/health/paranoid-personality-disorder#Overview1