What causes paranoia?

No one knows exactly what causes paranoia. It is likely be caused by a combination of different factors. There are many theories about what causes it and different people will have different explanations for their own experiences.

Life experiences

You are more likely to experience paranoid thoughts when you are in vulnerable, difficult or stressful situations – for example if you are lonely or by yourself a lot, or if you have low self-esteem. Difficult life events such as losing a job, a relationship break-up or the death of someone close to you may have the effect of making you feel very isolated. These events cause you to internalise these emotions, and make you feel insecure and under threat. If you are bullied in your workplace, or if your home is burgled, this can also form the root of suspicious thoughts that then develop into paranoia.

External environment

Some research has suggested that paranoid thoughts are more common if you live in an urban environment or a community, where you feel isolated from the people around you rather than connected to them. Media reports of crime, terrorism, violence and other social issues might also play a role in triggering paranoid feelings. High levels of stress might also put you at greater risk.

“When I lived in the USA before the end of the Cold War, the nuclear stand-off with the USSR preyed on my thoughts in a way that it probably wouldn’t have [done] had I lived there my whole life and been more used to it.”

Anxiety and depression

In some people, anxiety and depression can act as triggers for paranoid thoughts. If you are anxious, you are more likely to be on edge and may feel more fearful than normal. Depression can lower your self-esteem, and make you more inclined to interpret other people’s attitudes or intentions towards you negatively.

Childhood experiences

Events in your childhood may lead you to believe that the world is unsafe and that people are untrustworthy. This can affect the way you think as an adult. If you experienced abuse or neglect as a child, this can also trigger paranoia, because you are likely to feel distrustful and suspicious of others.

Physical illness

Paranoia is sometimes a symptom of certain physical illnesses, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Hearing loss can also trigger paranoid thoughts for some people

Lack of sleep

If you have trouble sleeping, this can have a big impact on paranoia.

Fears and worries may develop late at night when you are alone with your thoughts, and not getting enough sleep can trigger feelings of insecurity. If you are feeling frightened as a result of your paranoia, you are also less likely to sleep, which can turn into a negative cycle and make your paranoia worse.

The effects of drugs and alcohol

Drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines can all trigger paranoia. Certain steroids taken by athletes and weightlifters can also lead to symptoms of paranoia. Some insecticides, fuel and paint have also been associated with paranoia.

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