Paranoia is a medical term for a condition in which the person has either recurring delusions that people are trying to harm him or a false sense of exalted self-importance that leads him to be suspicious of others. Typically, people associate it with three medical conditions: paranoid schizophrenia, persecutory-type delusional disorder, and paranoid personality disorder (PPD). It is a complicated illness with a number of causes and symptoms. Many people do not use the word in a medical sense, but instead use it to describe someone who does not trust other people generally.
The symptoms of paranoia are diverse, but one of the most common is a strong distrust of other people. Often, paranoid people suspect that those around them are plotting against them and question the motives of others, leading them to be tense, oversensitive, and confrontational. They are unable to relax around people because of this lack of trust and often are quick to take offense to others' actions, which may make them uncomfortable at social functions. Other symptoms may include extreme stubbornness, perfectionism, and difficulty in expressing forgiveness, although these may also be signs of other mental disorders.
Clinically, mental health practitioners see paranoia as a secondary condition to illnesses like schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder, and a variety of other mental disorders. Many times, symptoms that appear to be related to paranoia may be an indication of a different disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or an anxiety disorder. Practitioners also associate this condition with dementia and delirium in the elderly.
The symptoms of paranoia often depend upon the type a person has. In 1995, professors Max J. Birchwood, Peter Trower, and Paul Chadwick categorized the disorder into two classifications: "bad me" and "poor me." In the "bad me" category, paranoid people think that they deserve any harassment, bullying, or persecution as a punishment; this is often associated with depression. In the "poor me" category, people believe that they do not deserve to be persecuted, and that the attacks are against them alone.
Although no one knows the exact causes of paranoia, medical professionals often cite factors such as heredity, head injuries, and chemical reasons like chronic methamphetamine usage. Some mental health care practitioners believe that paranoid people may suffer from a breakdown in some thought processes; people with schizophrenia, for example, may have a hard time thinking logically and not always know what's real and what's not. Other conditions, like depression and anxiety, can also cause a person to feel under attack.
A number of experts believe that extremely stressful situations, especially when combined with an ongoing habit of assuming that other people tend to act with bad intentions, can lead to paranoid thoughts. A child who has had her trust betrayed repeatedly, for example, may grow into a person who assumes that all people are against her. Sudden traumatic events, like a job loss or the death of a loved one, might push the person into becoming paranoid.
Depending on what is causing the paranoia, it may be necessary to treat the other mental disorder first or at the same time. If the patient is also suffering from anxiety, for instance, anti-anxiety medications may help her feel less nervous and suspicious, which can provide some relief. Paranoia itself is often treated with behavior therapy, which teaches the sufferer how to be less sensitive to criticism and helps increase her social skills. The therapy may take a long time, as this condition is very difficult to overcome due to the guarded traits associated with the disorder.
A paranoid person is usually not aware of the condition, so getting her treatment can be difficult. In most cases, if others bring the paranoia to her attention, it will only increase her levels of distrust. Some people may, in time, come to realize that they are questioning every action that other people take, but it is often very difficult for someone suffering with this condition to break the cycle. It is almost impossible for a person with this psychiatric disorder to control the condition without medical treatment.
In some cases, parents teach their children to question other people's motives, to suspect strangers of wrongdoings, and to mistrust all people generally. Examples of untrustworthy people can be seen on the news regularly as well. Paranoia may be a mental illness, but many people believe that society caters to people's tendencies to mistrust the motivations of others. After traumatic events like those of September 11, 2001, some observers saw an increase in the amount of US fiction that focused on mass paranoia as a rational response to contemporary events.
Some people believe that the fear of living in an Orwellian society causes mass distrust and suspicion among the population. The term refers to George Orwell's book, 1984, which describes a world where everything, down to the characters' thought processes, is monitored. In a few areas of the world, surveillance cameras are very common and constantly record what people around them do, often as a way to deter crime or gather evidence after a crime has been committed. Many people believe this has created a rise in non-medical paranoia.