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by Dr. Sidney Langston

Almost everyone experiences feelings of paranoia at some time in their lives. Paranoia is a perception that people are talking about you and spying on you, that they can’t be trusted and do not have your best interest at heart. Paranoid people feel helpless and fear entrapment. They tend to be touchy, slow to forgive and quick to take offense. They feel victimized by what they perceive to be the overly critical attitudes and unjust anger of others. At the same time they are very self-conscious and critical of themselves. In an effort to defend against their own fears, they project a great deal of hostility and sarcasm toward significant others.


Paranoia is believed to be caused by a malfunctioning of the human capacity to assign meanings, find connections and give reasons for another’s behavior. It is a perversion of the need to judge persons and events according to one’s dominant interest and concerns. According to one theory, paranoia may stem from intense disappointment in parents during childhood or from parents who are extremely rigid and judgmental.


While simple paranoia can cause extreme emotional distress, it usually does not result in a long-term mental disorder requiring psychological treatment. In simple paranoia, emotions can be  appropriate and behavior is more or less conventional. Hallucinations, disabling delusions and drastic personality changes do not occur. Intellect remains intact, and job performance is adequate. Suspicions and distrust are usually limited to one area, and therefore do not seriously interfere with daily life. For example, those who fear being poisoned may always want to prepare their own food, but otherwise function in a normal way.


Paranoia can and does take more severe forms. It often involves feelings of persecution and an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance. Conjugal paranoia is jealousy of a spouse resulting in possessiveness and a certainty that the spouse has a lover. The belief that one has a serious illness which doctors are conspiring to deny is known as hypochondriacal paranoia.


Another type of paranoia occurs in older people living alone whose hearing and eyesight are diminishing. Their isolation and sensory loss contribute to a growing suspicion that others are spying, stealing and otherwise harassing them even though, in reality, this is not happening.


Culture shock, yet another form of paranoia, is brought about by a sudden change in environment such as leaving the family home or going into military service. In a new and strange situation, the vulnerable person becomes suspicious of differences in lifestyles, customs, attitudes and behaviors. In essence, they have temporarily lost their sense of roots and identification due to the shock.

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