We’ve all had the feeling.
That itching feeling that something’s not quite right. That subtle sense of distrust, maybe of someone, or maybe something.
It might start with a simple question that pops up seemingly out of nowhere, but sooner or later it becomes an intense focus. Our mind starts to spiral and all of a sudden our mental energy is being drained by something that otherwise should have been a nonissue.
We have a term for this. It’s not nice. The word may even conjure up images of instability or even insanity.
We call it: paranoia.
If you’ve had this feeling, you probably want to know how to stop being paranoid.
What is Paranoia?
There are generally two ways in which we use the word paranoia.
The first is what a large majority of us will experience at some point. It is to be unreasonably or obsessively anxious, suspicious, or mistrustful. In this case, paranoia is an irrational thought-process driven by fear and anxiety.
It may be the suspicion that our lover is unfaithful or even just a conviction in the idea that we have bad luck – i.e. there is some unknown force that is preventing us from getting what we want.
The mildest version of this is called the attribution bias. This is a cognitive heuristic whereby we make errors when trying to attribute the causes of the behaviour of both ourselves and others.
The second is what we might call clinical paranoia. From this point of view, there are three main types of paranoia, all of which are focused around a mistrust of others. These habits stop the individual from being able to function socially. They are; paranoid personality disorder, a general but strong mistrust of the world, delusional disorder, which is dominated by one strong delusion usually around someone plotting to harm them, and paranoid schizophrenia, which may include strange delusions that go as far as hallucinations.
These disorders are not what I’ll be discussing here in this article, though if you believe you may have one or more of these, it’s highly advised you see a psychiatrist.
Am I Paranoid?
The mind is a tricky thing, and it can be tough to determine whether many of our concerns are legitimate or just, well, paranoia.
If you feel you are experiencing any of these symptomns, or you are often told by others that you exhibit these kinds of behaviour, it’s likely that you are acting in a way that we can consider paranoid.
- You find it difficult to trust other people
- You don’t cope well with any kind of criticism
- You’re often easily offended
- You’re often suspicious of others e.g. you think people are lying or cheating
- You are very interested in and convinced by ‘conspiracy theories’
- You’re always on the defensive
Why am I Paranoid?
Paranoia is a direct result of anxiety, and given we live a lifestyle that is increasingly conducive to anxiety, it’s unsurprising that more and more of us are becoming paranoid as well.
In the modern age, there are a number of environmental factors that lead to increased feelings of anxiousness, many of which are exacerbated by technology. Cultural phenomena that come as a result of increased news coverage and social media usage can largely be to blame.
The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), Status Anxiety, sensationalisation of news stories and Paralysis-by-analysis are all novel anxieties that we have to face that drive paranoid tendencies.
To give one example of paranoia in the modern world, the Flat Earth Theory, has gained a lot of traction in the last five years. This is despite the fact that in that same time period far more people than ever have been able to fly and literally see that the earth is round.
Interest in the earth being flat is not particularly geared towards the science, it is generated by a general mistrust of institutions and authority, of which education and academics fall under.
Some researchers have claimed that paranoia is amplified by feelings of victimization and powerlessness and that this is reinforced by lower socioeconomic status. Another study in 2014 found that women who were placed in a virtual reality simulator and made to perceive themselves as physically smaller in comparison to their environment felt more paranoia.
These links make some sense under the lens of evolutionary theory, as being smaller or less powerful tends to mean you can be under more threat and should have your guard up.
There a number of causes of paranoia, and it’s probable that a number of genetic and environmental factors contribute to someone being paranoid.
Technology is an obvious culprit for a couple of reasons. Firstly, technology promotes distortions within our relationships that could be correlated to a general increase in social anxiety. Our communications between one another are limited and selective, and we have an unrealistic perspective of how other people live. A general information overload also heightens anxieties as the brain is working overtime in an attempt to filter information.
Secondly, our access to news is conducive to paranoia, because it highlights the most extreme aspects of our culture, particularly the negative. In order to keep the news entertaining, current events are boiled down to a Hollywood-esque storyline. These are underpinned by black and white thinking, and encourage a worldview that is heavily conspiratorial.
How to stop being paranoid
Here I’ve covered the six most effective ways to eliminate your paranoia. A holistic approach will be the most useful, and tracking your feelings of paranoia either with a journal or a therapist will help you see the progress you’re making.
It’s useful before you start to do any of these, to accept that you’re having feelings of paranoia and remind yourself in what ways this may be negatively impacting your life, and in what ways overcoming these feelings would benefit you.
Reduce Your Anxiety
As paranoia is largely a result of anxiety, it makes sense to attack this part of your psyche first. There are dozens of ways to reduce anxiety. Here are some of the most common ways to do so in your daily life:
- Practice Meditation
- See a therapist
- Take supplements
- Do more exercise
- Keep a Journal
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Spend more time laughing
Improve your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings
When we have a low tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, we quickly become averse to them when they arise, and tend to push them away and not deal with them. Improving our tolerance for these sensations gives you the time to stay with them enough to break them down and deconstruct them.
So for example, if you have an anxious thought such as “what did Sarah really mean when she said that?” you’ll be more able to stick with the thought and recognize it as anxiety.
When we are unable to look at a thought, another anxious thought will usually occur. In the case of Sarah, this could be “maybe she doesn’t really like me”, which may cause another such as “she’s out to get me”, until we’ve spiraled towards paranoia.
Humour is the most effective technique for confronting uncomfortable feelings. It has the function of relieving psychological or physiological tension, and in doing so it can allow perspective shifts that cause old beliefs to crumble. If you can identify your suspicions and make fun of them, they will start to lose their potency over time.
Practice Rational Thought with Mental Models
Having a psychological process that you use as a tool can be incredibly useful for preventing the aggravation of paranoid thoughts.
Two of the most effective methods of inquiry I’ve found for any type of thought that I want to deconstruct and let go of are Byron Katies ‘The Word’ and The Sedona Method.
They work by simply taking a thought, focusing on the feelings associated with that thought, and asking a series of questions until the role that it plays within your experience changes.
Let’s take the example of the thought “John is always out to prove me wrong!”
- Is it true? Is it true that John is ALWAYS out to get you? Be quiet and wait for a response in how your body feels, as opposed to what your mind says.
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Can you ultimately know with 100% certainty that John is out to prove you wrong? Can you always know John’s intentions, without being inside his head?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? What happens when you believe that John is always out to prove you wrong? Do you experience anger and frustration? Do you ruminate on the idea of John trying to get you?
- Who would you be without the thought? Close your eyes and visualization how you would be without the idea that John is trying to prove you wrong? Would you be more calm, open, relaxed?
- Could you let this thought go? You might not feel like you can, which is ok. The emphasis here is on the process of inquiry, not on the answers that it generates.
- Would you let this thought go? Is this thought still useful to you? Would you be better off without it? This is extra effective after having asked the question ‘who would you be without the thought from Byron Katie’s inquiry.
- When could you let this thought go? It doesn’t really matter how or if you answer this question, simply doing so allow your mind to conceptualize you letting go of the thought in the moment. After this has become a possibility, the thought will inherently have less of a grip over you, because the seed of doubt in its authority has been planted.
In my experience, you need to do this self-inquiry slowly and with strong intent. Though it requires patient and practice, is the most effective way for changing how you relate to certain thoughts.
You can experiment with doing the inquiry solely in your head, or writing down the answers.
Confront Your Suspicions with a Journal
If you’re having suspicious thoughts about an individual or a group of people, it’s always effective to question those suspicions. Try and write down how you feel, how long you’ve felt that way, and why you may feel that way. It’s also incredibly effective to try and come up with a number of alternative explanations and argue for why they may be right. This will stop you from jumping to conclusions and quickly investing in thoughts that are being governed by emotional responses rather than reason.
Remember that the brain has a number of cognitive biases, many of which are made worse by anxiety, stress, and fear. You may want to become familiar with a few of these and try and see where you are being influenced by them.
Keeping a diary can help combat anxiety and in turn, help you reduce your paranoia. There are a number of ways you can journal, you may want to start with the self-inquiry method above. Another way to do so is to write down how you feel, how strong the feeling is, and why you may feel that way.
One 2010 study of medical students, who tend to have more anxiety than the general population, found that journaling was an effective intervention technique to reduce stress and anxiety.
Improve your mood and self-esteem
As I touched on briefly earlier, feelings of being small or powerlessness are associated with paranoia. This seems to extend to other negative self-evaluations, as feelings of depression and low self-esteem also appear to be correlated with paranoia.
All of the advice recommended for anxiety are also applicable here, but if you want to improve your mood and self-esteem, it’s vital to make sure you are eating healthy, spending time in nature, and exercising regularly.
Remember that if you’re feeling depressed, it’s valuable and healthy that you tell someone you love, as opposed to keeping it to yourself.
For a practical and detailed look into how to improve your self-esteem, check out Nathaniel Branden’s book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
If you’d like to know how to change your thinking and improve your mood, David Burn’s book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, is one of the pinnacle works in this field.
Spend more time with other people
When you spend too much time by yourself, it gives your brain more time and space to ruminate, which can naturally increase feelings of paranoia.
In a sample of people who didn’t have clinical paranoia, it was found that social exclusion was highly correlated with state paranoia.This means that if you want to make your brain feel paranoid for no reason, spending less and less time with others is a perfect way to do so.
When you discuss your suspicions with other people, it much easier to challenge them and see why they may be false. Likewise, when you’re with a group of people, the way in which your psychological energy is directed is determined by the feedback that other people are giving you. If you’re out at dinner and everyone’s talking about a TV series that they’ve seen, it’s more difficult to be thinking about an unrelated conspiracy then if you were sitting at home and letting your paranoia build up.
Paranoia and anxiety can be incredibly frustrating, but they don’t need to have an unnecessary influence over your emotions and social relationships.
In the fight against the monkey mind, it can often feel like you’re swimming upstream, but as you develop the skills to deal with your thoughts, that struggle will become easier and easier.
Use the above-mentioned methods and be diligent in your process. And as always, try to see the humour and not take it too seriously!
What experience have you had with reducing your paranoia? Let me know in the comments!