A Slew of Suspects

Suspicion is a useful, even necessary, trait—up to a point. Even though we live in times that breed distrust, there is a line, however fine, between the healthy and the clinical.

By Stephanie Booth via Psychology Today
Published on November 01, 2011 – last reviewed on January 02, 2012

You walk into the conference room just as your coworkers halt their conversation: Were they talking about you? Or maybe you can’t help but notice that the same car has been behind you on the highway for the past few miles. Are you being followed?

At one time or another, everyone experiences the kind of insecurity that can give rise to suspicious thoughts. But when thoughts consistently veer toward the perception of threats, you’re not just being cautious—you may actually be paranoid.

Paranoia is a cognitive distortion, a consistent, unfounded view that others want to hurt us in some way. It’s marked by a tendency to interpret neutral situations with a negative slant and then—even in the face of information to the contrary—to treat those fears as fact. It’s a hallmark of severe mental illness, most notably schizophrenia.

But paranoia isn’t limited to those with severe psycho-pathology; it exists on a spectrum, affecting plenty of otherwise healthy individuals. In fact, a mild—but still maladaptive—shade of this cognitive distortion, known as nonclinical or “everyday” paranoia, affects about a third of the population, research shows. For people with everyday paranoia, believing that friends, acquaintances, or strangers are hostile or critically focused on them is a daily occurrence.

What sets apart clinical from nonclinical paranoia is how strongly the ideas are held, how distressing they are, and how much they interfere with daily functioning. As with most other mental health problems, there is no clear cutoff between clinical and nonclinical paranoia; it’s a judgment call reflecting how much distress and disability the problem causes.

Not only is everyday paranoia common, some experts believe it’s on the rise. Our current media environment, with its endless repetition of scary news, has the effect of magnifying threats, which gives rise to paranoia in the susceptible. Now more than ever, the stage is set for suspicious thinking.

Keep Reading: A Slew of Suspects | Psychology Today.

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