Paranoia is an unfounded or exaggerated distrust of others, sometimes reaching delusional proportions. Paranoid individuals constantly suspect the motives of those around them, and believe that certain individuals, or people in general, are "out to get them."
Paranoid perceptions and behavior may appear as features of a number of mental illnesses, including depression and dementia, but are most prominent in three types of psychological disorders: paranoid schizophrenia, delusional disorder (persecutory type), and paranoid personality disorder (PPD).
Individuals with paranoid schizophrenia and persecutory delusional disorder experience what is known as persecutory delusions: an irrational, yet unshakable, belief that someone is plotting against them. Persecutory delusions in paranoid schizophrenia are bizarre, sometimes grandiose, and often accompanied by auditory hallucinations. Delusions experienced by individuals with delusional disorder are more plausible than those experienced by paranoid schizophrenics; not bizarre, though still unjustified. Individuals with delusional disorder may seem offbeat or quirky rather than mentally ill, and, as such, may never seek treatment.
Persons with paranoid personality disorder tend to be self-centered, self-important, defensive, and emotionally distant. Their paranoia manifests itself in constant suspicions rather than full-blown delusions. The disorder often impedes social and personal relationships and career advancement. Some individuals with PPD are described as "litigious," as they are constantly initiating frivolous law suits. PPD is more common in men than in women, and typically begins in early adulthood.
Causes and symptoms
The exact cause of paranoia is unknown. Potential causal factors may be genetics, neurological abnormalities, changes in brain chemistry, and stress. Paranoia is also a possible side effect of drug use and abuse (for example, alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, PCP). Acute, or short term, paranoia may occur in some individuals overwhelmed by stress.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), the diagnostic standard for mental health professionals in the United States, lists the following symptoms for paranoid personality disorder:
- suspicious; unfounded suspicions; believes others are plotting against him/her
- preoccupied with unsupported doubts about friends or associates
- reluctant to confide in others due to a fear that information may be used against him/her
- reads negative meanings into innocuous remarks
- bears grudges
- perceives attacks on his/her reputation that are not clear to others, and is quick to counterattack
- maintains unfounded suspicions regarding the fidelity of a spouse or significant other
Patients with paranoid symptoms should undergo a thorough physical examination and patient history to rule out possible organic causes (such as dementia) or environmental causes (such as extreme stress). If a psychological cause is suspected, a psychologist will conduct an interview with the patient and may administer one of several clinical inventories, or tests, to evaluate mental status.
Paranoia that is symptomatic of paranoid schizophrenia, delusional disorder, or paranoid personality disorder should be treated by a psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Antipsychotic medication such as thioridazine (Mellaril), haloperidol (Haldol), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), clozapine (Clozaril), or risperidone (Risperdal) may be prescribed, and cognitive therapy or psychotherapy may be employed to help the patient cope with their paranoia and/or persecutory delusions. Antipsychotic medication, however, is of uncertain benefit to individuals with paranoid personality disorder and may pose long-term risks.
If an underlying condition, such as depression or drug abuse, is found to be triggering the paranoia, an appropriate course of medication and/or psychosocial therapy is employed to treat the primary disorder.
Because of the inherent mistrust felt by paranoid individuals, they often must be coerced into entering treatment. As unwilling participants, their recovery may be hampered by efforts to sabotage treatment (for example, not taking medication or not being forthcoming with a therapist), a lack of insight into their condition, or the belief that the therapist is plotting against them. Albeit with restricted lifestyles, some patients with PPD or persecutory delusional disorder continue to function in society without treatment.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1994.
Maxmen, Jerrold S., and Nicholas G. Ward. "Personality Disorders." In Essential Psychopathology and Its Treatment. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Maxmen, Jerrold S., and Nicholas G. Ward. "Schizophrenia and Related Disorders." In Essential Psychopathology and Its Treatment. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Siegel, Ronald K. Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia. New York: Crown, 1994.
Manschreck, Theo C. "Delusional Disorder: The Recognition and Management of Paranoia." Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 57, supplement 3 (1996): 32-38.
American Psychological Association (APA). 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242. (202) 336-5700. <http://www.apa.org>.
American Psychiatric Association. 1400 K Street NW, Washington DC 20005. (888) 357-7924. <http://www.psych.org>.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Colonial Place Three, 2107 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 300, Arlington, VA 22201-3042. (800) 950-6264. <http://www.nami.org>.
National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Health Public Inquiries, 5600 Fishers Lane, Room 15C-05, Rockville, MD 20857. (888) 826-9438. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov>.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin
Persecutory delusion—A fixed, false, and inflexible belief that others are engaging in a plot or plan to harm an individual.