June 2015. Lasers pierce the night’s sky as music pierces my ears. It’s the last evening of one of the world’s biggest music festivals. Things are going out with a bang. I’m surrounded by noise, the scent of stale beer, dry ice, and a vague memory of freshly cut grass from the fields of Glastonbury, and people. Lots and lots of people. Except for my friends, who I’ve lost in the crowd.
I feel alone and anxious. I’m tired. I start to panic as I realize that the only way back to my tent is through thousands, all walking in the opposite direction to me. The mile I walk to the refuge of my campsite is filled with confusion. Paranoid thoughts race through my mind. Each glance, each sound of laughter, each smile, builds a narrative of threat, and I’m at the center.
This wasn’t my first experience of extreme paranoia, and wouldn’t be my last. My mental health history is rich and varied, but paranoia? It’s the most disturbing experience I’ve had, and something incredibly difficult to talk about. But I’m not only going to talk about it, but provide insights and solutions I’ve found useful, supported by psychological research and spiritual wisdom.
I’ve tried to investigate paranoia from the inside out, and have been able to overcome its intrusive qualities, for the most part. So let’s walk this difficult walk together, side-by-side, as we explore how to overcome paranoia.
What Is Paranoia?
According to the mental health charity, Mind, paranoia is: “thinking and feeling like you are being threatened in some way, even if there is no evidence, or very little evidence, that you are. Paranoid thoughts can also be described as delusions.” It’s the sense that people are out to get you or cause you harm. Although commonly associated with psychosis and schizophrenia, paranoia exists on a spectrum.
All people have paranoid thoughts. The spectrum of paranoia is from subtle self-consciousness to full-blown delusions. Often people are aware when a thought is paranoid in nature. But when these thoughts are confused with the truth, they begin to shape your external reality into one of threat and unsafety. At the extreme, my experience with paranoia blurred the boundaries of reality. Through a bout of psychosis, my paranoid thoughts became “voices” in my head, and those voices in my head were hard to discern from events actually happening, “out there.”
Rather than a one-off thought that is quickly disregarded, someone experiencing extreme paranoia might develop a scenario about why they’re persecuted, and their reality begins to play out that story. Often, even with evidence to the contrary, the belief or delusion remains. Paranoia is closely related to social anxiety, as both are centered around the fear of being perceived or judged in a certain way.
The Psychology of Paranoia
Regular paranoid thoughts are believed to be prevalent in around 10 percent of the American population. One of the key qualities of paranoid thinking has been described as “pathological confidence” in one’s own thinking. In researching this article, it’s the first time I’ve come across the term pathological confidence, but this makes a lot of sense — paranoid thoughts are extremely rigid and fixed, held in place with a degree of certainty.
In addition, there are a few cognitive distortions that make up the DNA of paranoia. They include jumping to conclusions, based on limited information, such as interpreting one comment as proof that someone is plotting to harm you behind your back. Additionally, confirmation bias includes finding evidence to affirm an unconscious belief.
Interpretation bias depends on the way someone translates ambiguous information in their environment. The more negatively events are interpreted, the higher the levels of paranoia. When someone has a paranoid disorder, the deep-rooted fear of harm can lead to a higher chance of interpreting relevant data negatively. This is known as content specificity. A study from 2020 explains this bias as:
“Biases in panic disorder should be most closely associated with interpretations concerning the meaning of bodily sensations as a sign of death or disease, whereas biases in paranoia should be closely associated with interpretations reflecting a threat of harm to the self, such as the stare of a stranger as malicious.”
People high in paranoid thinking also demonstrate externalizing bias and personalizing bias. Externalizing bias talks to the tendency for people to project their inner world onto their environment, to externalize it. At Glastonbury, for example, rather than take full ownership of my anxiety, I was externalizing its cause in the sea of faces I walked past. Personalizing bias is a form of self-blame. A related theory from psychology is the spotlight effect, where people overestimate how much attention others pay to their behavior or appearance.
The Role of Suspicion
Suspicion plays a vital role in paranoia because paranoia operates in the realm of ambiguity, or assumption. When something is easy to prove, there’s no scope for paranoid thinking. There are times when it pays to be suspicious. Some research suggests paranoia has an evolutionary benefit — being suspicious of a new member of the tribe might make you more likely to detect a threat. But developing intimate relationships requires a healthy balance of trust, and excessive suspicion acts as a barrier to trust.
There is, of course, scope for justified suspicion. Paranoid thoughts are healthy, within reason. If you’re a woman walking alone at night, it’s within reason to be suspicious of strangers. If you’re an average citizen, it’s not within reason to think the CIA is tracking you. But if you’re a top-ranking journalist attempting to report a whistleblowing story in the American government? Then even outlandish suspicions could be justified.
Because some forms of abuse, such as gaslighting, exploit people’s deeper intuition around something being wrong, by claiming it’s all in the victim’s head, there is a need for a healthy balance. That means learning to navigate the world with a healthy degree of discernment, between when things really aren’t okay and when paranoid thinking is exaggerated and maladaptive.
Steps to Overcome Paranoid Thinking
The good news is that, despite how intrusive it can feel, there is a way through paranoia. Again, I want to be clear I’m not an expert, but I have applied various techniques that have drastically reduced paranoid thinking in my life. If paranoia is causing you significant issues, then it’s best to talk to a professional. That being said, the below points will, hopefully, offer a solid starting point:
1. Create distance from paranoid thoughts
Remember that pathology confidence in thoughts? Yeah, that’ll cause all sorts of issues. I once remember a therapist talking about OCD, and how, most people have thoughts that rank on the OCD spectrum, but people with the disorder become extremely attached to those thoughts, seeing them as true, or doing all they can to resist them, including rituals. The difference between pathology and healthy adaptation was the degree of seeing thoughts as true.
Seeing thoughts as just thoughts is a significant practice of meditation and mindfulness. The same goes with many therapies, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches people how to reframe their thoughts in a more skillful way. So, the first significant step is first not accepting the paranoid thought as true. It might contain elements of truth, but it isn’t the truth. Second, attempt to reframe the thought in a more rational way.
2. Be conscious of how you fill in the blanks
I’ve pondered whether the difference between happiness and sadness is in the quality of assumption. That’s oversimplified, but there is an element of truth in it. So much of life is unknown, and we have to find peace in the unknown elements. We can never fully know what even our closest friends are thinking, for example, and a degree of trust and the positive assumption is necessary.
Paranoid thinking involves assumptions that are excessively self-centered and contain negative connotations. If there’s some distance from thoughts, then there’s space to adjust the quality of assumption. If you notice yourself pulled into a scenario, take a few deep breaths, step back, and know that any unfounded assumptions are entirely under your control.
Of course, the additional step is to validate or investigate. Let’s say you have a paranoid thought that one of your friends secretly doesn’t like you, because they made a hurtful comment. You could fixate on a scenario. Or, you could open up an honest conversation, asking them why they said what they did. Just make sure to be compassionate, without making allegations or directing blame.
3. Be aware of biases
I’ve introduced a number of cognitive biases above. I’d recommend using these as markers of awareness; when you become switched onto these biases, when and how they’re likely to happen, you give yourself the opportunity to avoid spiraling into paranoid thinking, but to observe: “ah, here’s another paranoid thought.” I’ve been exploring this recently due to “echoes” of psychosis, which I understand as trauma resurfacing because I’m ready to tackle it with my current level of development.
Either way, it was a powerful lesson that what you resist persists, but what you accept shifts. I’m in a much different place now than when I experienced the first wave, so I could handle it with greater ease. The more I held my awareness on the mechanisms of paranoia, the more it lost its hold. Awareness and curiosity are a great combination. Spot biases. And remember none of this is “you” but parts of your psychology you get to witness.
4. Calibrate your intuition and instinct
I’m a believer that some paranoid thinking stems from misreading the message of intuition. The more tuned into your intuition, the more you’ll clearly be able to detect when there’s a greater intelligence informing you something is off. This is a matter of personal discovery and inquiry, but as a basic marker, intuition appears as calm and spacious, usually arriving in consciousness as a “knowing.”
Instinct, on the other hand, is more primal. The instinct to flee from a dangerous situation can be highly useful. But, if living with unprocessed trauma, the trauma itself, and fight-or-flight responses to normal situations, can be confused for intuition or instinct. Learning to discern what is genuine and what is trauma-informed is a powerful process in self-growth.
5. Focus on compassion
There’s a law in physics that states a vacuum must always be filled by matter. You could apply this metaphor to assumptions — the vacuum of data is asking for something to fill it. So you have a choice. You can opt for a self-conscious, paranoid scenario. You could opt for a replacement scenario where you’re loved and supported, which is much more adjustable and beneficial. Or you can fill the vacuum with something other than thoughts.
This was a huge breakthrough for me. When I started meditation, particularly loving-kindness meditation, I realized how much power I had to connect to feelings of kindness and compassion. I learned how to cultivate this in my heart. And guess what happened? The vacuum of assumption started to be replaced not by scenarios, but by the feeling of compassion!
Every time I felt afraid, I’d focus on cultivating compassion. I would accept the thought, remind myself it wasn’t true, and see it as an opportunity to practice loving-kindness. This is a win-win situation — if you’re paranoid thinking is unfounded, then you’ve just transformed that unhelpful thinking pattern into compassion. And in rare situations, if the paranoid thoughts may contain some truth? Well, those people probably deserve compassion, anyway.
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