Researchers at Yale found a way to be happy during the pandemic. The crisis gave them a rare chance to study what happens when the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. One of the things that happens, they confirmed, is people get more paranoid. During the recent troubles, especially in places where masks were mandated and the rules flouted, people felt betrayed and acted erratically — its part of being paranoid.
The researchers also found that people who were more paranoid were more likely to endorse conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines. They were also more likely to accept the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits, among other ideas, that the government is protecting politicians and Hollywood entertainers who are running pedophile rings across the country.
When fear grips someone, one way to exercise self-defense is to project that fear outward rather than feel the full weight of it. When someone is gripped by this behavior or unaware of it, their actions can be labelled “paranoid.” Someone experiencing paranoia puts their fear on someone or something outside themselves where they can fight it, contain it, or, sadly, kill it.
Back in the volatile 1960’s, a time torn apart with Vietnam War protests, antiracism marches and assassinations, Buffalo Springfield sang about what happens when fear is rampant.
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
Am I becoming more paranoid?
If you are becoming more paranoid, it would not be surprising. Many people are. When I was talking a couple of weeks ago about why the Trump effect is not over yet, one of the reasons was increased paranoia.
Nancy McWilliams says the “essence of paranoid personality organization is the habit of dealing with one’s felt negative qualities by disavowing and projecting them: the disowned attributes then feel like external threats” (in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis). She goes on to say that people experiencing their paranoia not only struggle with anger, resentment, vindictiveness and other visibly hostile feelings, they also suffer overwhelming fear.
Paranoid people can be hard to help. To hear some people talk about it, they stopped going home for Thanksgiving during the during the Trump era because Uncle Bill would not quit talking about conspiracy theories. The general atmosphere of paranoia makes normal rules of politeness less relevant; there was no way to talk to Uncle Bill in a civil way. In therapy, or in the church, paranoid people can be difficult. They are mainly dealing with shame and guilt by loading those internal enemies they fear on you and making you the enemy.
When it comes to shame, paranoid people may use denial and projection so powerfully that no sense of shame remains accessible to them. Their focus on the assumed motives of others rather than on what is happening internally makes it nearly impossible to relate to anyone who is not sharing their paranoia.
Paranoid people are also profoundly burdened with guilt, usually unacknowledged and projected. If you try to help them, you will probably excite the terror they have that you might really get to know them. Because, if you do, you will be shocked by all their sins and depravities, and will reject or punish them for their crimes. They chronically use their energy to ward off such humiliation and transform any sense of culpability into dangers that threaten them from the outside. They unconsciously expect to be found out, and transform this fear into constant, exhausting efforts to discern the “real” evil intent behind anyone else’s behavior toward them.
Unfortunately for us all, like the Yale researchers found out, paranoia breeds more paranoia which causes people to act outside usual norms – the “norms” they suspect are fronting evil intent. Suddenly all Democrats are pedophiles and all Republicans are Nazis. So leaders such as school teachers, doctors, pastors, and block captains need watch dogs more than followers.
How does one become paranoid?
Psychological traits are all on a spectrum from healthy to harmful. They mix with other styles to form complex approaches to life. So “becoming paranoid” is not like crossing the border into a new land.
Chances are however, one is paranoid because they are very afraid. They had a good reason to think someone or something was out to get them. More paranoia may be induced by:
- Intense fear. This fear may have been as a result of experiencing trauma, especially if it was in one’s family, but also if one witnessed violence or was threatened. Being overwhelmed by fear could cause someone to constantly worry about further harm.
- Isolation. If one felt alone as a child or lived in a disorganized or dangerous family, they might have developed hypervigilance to survive.
- Drug use. Research shows substance use can cause suspicion and fear which then increases the risk of living with paranoia on a regular basis
- Detrimental view of self. When one feels fatally flawed or worthless they are likely to suspect others think and feel the same way about them and are ready to shame them for it.
Paranoia causes mistrust; and once-betrayed, one can remain in a state of suspicion. This suspicion will not only have an impact on one’s psychological well-being but also their feelings, thoughts, behaviors and physical health.
If you think you are being watched and that your life is under threat, this is going to cause higher levels of anxiety, increased levels of stress or worry, and may cause you to avoid going out. I have clients from marginalized populations who are nervous about the thought someone could be watching our Zoom session via their laptop camera or phone. Constant surveillance increases paranoia. During the recent coup in our church, people stopped talking, stopped reading newsfeeds on social media, blocked people from communicating with them because they suspected anything they said or posted would be collected, misconstrued and used against them. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep
Pandemic sleep disorders contributed to the increase in paranoia and paranoia increased sleep disorders. Living under threat has an impact on one’s sleeping patterns and is an overall high risk impact on one’s general wellbeing and mental health.
What can stop someone from reaching out for help?
Continuing to live in fear can have long term effects on both physical and mental health. If you have symptoms that worry you or someone has told you you have them, it is important to reach out for help.
The most graphic example of someone in the Bible who did not reach out for help is King Saul. Paranoia took over his life. When Saul realized young David had captured the hearts of the people of Israel, he became angry and began to keep a suspicious eye on him (1 Samuel 18:6–9). David had made no threatening moves toward Saul, yet Saul’s jealousy turned to paranoia and he began seeking ways to kill David. The Bible records that “an evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul” (1 Samuel 18:10). This seems to imply that, in his jealousy and hatred toward an innocent man, Saul opened the door for demonic influence in his own heart. His paranoia became so overwhelming that he went on a murderous rampage, convinced that David was out to get him and that everyone else was against him, too, including the Lord’s priests (1 Samuel 22:13–19) and his own son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30–33). We often think a king might be above such trouble, but we are all vulnerable.
A person experiencing paranoia always has reasons, often unverifable, for why they won’t get help.
- They are afraid to tell anyone what is going on and the reasons they feel the way they do.
- They have been warned not to speak to anyone. Their internal dialogue or real oppressors threaten them.
- They are afraid to leave their home or visit an unknown building because it feels uncontrollable.
- They are afraid they are being watched. They may not want to drag someone else , like their theerapist, into the bad thing they expect to happen. Paranoia and secrets go together.
- They are experiencing hallucinations – for example, hearing voices. Their voices are fearful of people who will diminish their reality.
- They have no idea where to go for help.
All of the above reasons to avoid seeking help can be fed by paranoia. Thankfully there is support out there to help you to overcome this. If you or someone you care about needs help, just Google “paranoia hotline.” If you want a more secure, personal connection, call Circle Counseling or the Council for Relationships.