As we work toward destigmatizing mental illness, many people are now learning basic psychological terms for the first time. Where once it might have been challenging to find words to describe your mental health experiences, terms such as anxiety, depression, and paranoia are becoming fairly commonplace. But what do these words actually mean and how they can affect your life?
If you suffer from anxiety, there is a good chance that you may also suffer from paranoia. If you suffer from paranoia, there is a good chance that you may also suffer from anxiety. However, just because you have one, does not necessarily mean that you have the other. While they can go hand-in-hand, it is not always the case. However, before you can understand in which ways paranoia and anxiety are similar, you must first understand why there are also quite different.
What Is Paranoia?
Paranoia is characterized by intense, fearful feelings and is often related to thoughts of conspiracy, persecution, and threats. While often occurring in many different mental disorders, paranoia is often not present in several psychotic disorders. With paranoia, irrational beliefs and paranoid thoughts are made out to be real and absolutely nothing—not even factual evidence disproving the belief is able to convince you that you are wrong. When you have delusions or paranoia without other symptoms, you may have something known as a delusional disorder—and could ultimately lead to a nervous breakdown. As only your thoughts would be impacted with a delusional disorder, you will still be able to function and work in your everyday life. Outside of work, however, your life could be isolated and extremely limited.
Signs of Paranoia
Some of the symptoms you can expect to see if you are suffering from paranoia include an intense and even irrational lack of trust or even suspicion about something or someone. This lack of trust or suspicion has the potential to bring you a sense of betrayal, fear, and anger. In fact, if you suffer from paranoia, you may show symptoms such as:
- Difficulty in forgiving
- Fear of being taken advantage of
- Defensiveness toward imagined criticism
- Thoughts that everyone is out to get you
- The inability to relax
Paranoia is caused by a breakdown of different emotional and mental functions. Those functions involve both assigned meanings as well as reasoning. While there is no real reason known for the breakdowns, they are extremely varied and uncertain. At the same time, there are also several symptoms of paranoia that are related to denied, projected, or repressed feelings. What is known about the cause of paranoia, however, is that it is often the feelings and thoughts which are related to relationships or certain events in your life that cause the problem. Since these events are typically more personal, this is often the reason why those who suffer from paranoia prefer to be isolated and have increasing difficulty when it comes to getting help.
What Is Anxiety?
For most of us, anxiety is considered more of a general term that covers multiple disorders that cause fear, worry, nervousness, and apprehension. All of these anxiety-related disorders affect how we behave, think, and feel and can eventually lead to physical symptoms as well. While a mild case of anxiety can be unsettling and vague, a more severe case of anxiety can be so serious as to affect your everyday life.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the exact definition of anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
With that being said of the varying degrees of anxiety, it is very important to identify the differences between the feelings of normal anxiety compared to a full-on anxiety disorder that requires some type of medical attention.
When you are faced with a potentially worrying or harmful trigger, this is when feelings of anxiety are felt. They are not just normal but are actually required for your survival. You see, ever since the beginning of humanity, certain situations have set off alarms within the human brain letting us know that we need to carry out evasive action. These “alarms” come in the form of sweating, a heightened awareness of surroundings, and an increased heart rate. This is known as the “fight or flight response.”
In today’s day and age, this same fight or flight response doesn’t come from dangerous predators, but rather money, work, health, family life, and myriad other issues that demand your attention.
For example, the nervous feeling we have all experienced at some point in our lives is essentially brought on by a difficult situation such as a first date, or other important event. This nervous feeling could emerge right before giving a speech in front of 1,500 peers, the day of your wedding, or even crossing a busy road getting the feeling that you are going to be hit by a car.
An anxiety disorder is essentially when the symptoms, duration, and severity of your anxious feelings are blown out of proportion. An anxiety disorder can actually lead to several physical symptoms such as nausea and high blood pressure. If these physical symptoms are observed, it is no longer considered anxiety, but an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder occurs when you have a reaction that is out of proportion to what is considered normal within a certain situation.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders that include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Some common eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa, are also linked to anxiety. It is also possible to have one or more anxiety disorders at the same time. While anxiety and paranoia are two separate conditions, certain anxiety symptoms can include and will lead to paranoia. If you have paranoia, the chances are that you got to that point in your life by having more severe degrees of anxiety.
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Other Causes of Anxiety
Although many mental illnesses can cause anxiety, one does not have to be mentally ill to experience it. Mental health is more than just being “sick” or “healthy” and there are many complex factors that can cause otherwise unafflicted people to experience certain symptoms without warranting an official diagnosis. Here are some reasons—other than mental illness—as to why one may experience anxiety:
- Substance use
- Extreme stress at work, school or in personal relationships
- Financial hardships
- Physical health conditions such as thyroid disorders
- Lack of oxygen to the brain due to health circumstances including blood clots and high-altitude sickness
- Side effects of certain medications
It is important to understand that your mental health is always important. It is not “just” stress from a busy schedule or a workplace conflict. If anxiety from personal circumstances is interfering with your life, you should reach out for help and talk to your doctor about getting the support that you need.
INFOGRAPHIC: How Common is Anxiety?
The short answer is that anyone could be experiencing anxiety, paranoia or both. These conditions do not discriminate based on physical health, income, age or any other factors. That being said, there are certain people who are particularly vulnerable. Here are some groups of people who are most at risk for anxiety:
- Adults under 35
- Those with chronic diseases
- Low-income people
- Racial minorities
- Drug users
- Women are nearly twice as likely to develop anxiety than men
- North Americans are more likely to develop anxiety than other populations
Many of these groups, such as drug users, are also generally more vulnerable to paranoia. Given the fact that paranoia is rarer than anxiety, it is important also to look at one’s genetic history, and whether there are past instances of paranoia and psychosis in the family tree.
Please note that this list is far from extensive. If you do not match any of the descriptions above, it does not mean that you are not in need of help.
Similarities Between Anxiety and Paranoia
As you can see, the two conditions are not totally similar, but they are not totally different, either. Anxiety is much for prevalent in modern society, with a predicted 40 million Americans suffering every year. However, both conditions can have overlapping signs and symptoms.
Both conditions can leave you feeling hopeless, restless, a reluctance to trust and reach out to others, and a sense of low self-worth. They also both have symptoms that can manifest in physical ways, such as with trouble breathing, a poor sleeping pattern, and even digestive health issues in more serious cases.
Regardless of which condition (or both) that you are struggling with, it is critical that you see a doctor right away. Just like with physical ailments, early detection and diagnosis can help improve outcomes and make the treatment process easier and faster.
If any of the above symptoms ring a bell, you might be overwhelmed with questions. Do you have anxiety or paranoia or both? Which diagnosis, if any, fits your situation? What treatment options are available? Can you take a medication? Should you be going to a therapist?
There are lots of questions that need to be answered, but fortunately you have someone in your life who can help you know how to start treating your health issues: your doctor.
Book an appointment with your family doctor and discuss the symptoms you have been experiencing. It is important to be honest about your situation and not downplay any of your symptoms. This is especially true if you believe that you might have a delusional disorder or feel that you might be at risk of hurting yourself or others.
Your doctor might refer you to a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker or another trained mental health professional. They might also recommend blood work and other physical tests. They should be able to speak with you about next steps to taking care of your health and discuss the possibility of using medication or therapy to help you recover.
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Strategies to Cope with Paranoia and Anxiety
Medical treatments like anti-anxiety medications or counseling can help you get a handle on your condition, but there are also everyday things you can do to make your life easier. From spending a bit more time focusing on self-care to addressing any workplace issues that might arise from your symptoms, it is important to take actions to address your condition head-on. Here are just a few of the strategies that could help you cope on a day-to-day basis:
- Reach out to loved ones when you feel you need it
- Be forthcoming with employers and teachers when your mental health is affecting your performance. They can work with you to make the necessary accommodations
- Consider taking sick days or time off work if you feel unable to handle it without making your condition worse
- Get enough sleep at night
- Stay hydrated and eat a healthy diet
- Leave yourself time every day to unwind and relax away from the stresses of school and work
- Consider dropping unnecessary or stressful commitments
- Treat any physical health problems that may be contributing to your paranoia or anxiety
- If possible, get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily
- Speak to your doctor about nutritional support like CBD and omega-3s, which have been shown to help with anxiety
While the causes and symptoms of both anxiety and paranoia are different, they will eventually find each other to cause you to have both conditions. It is true that you can be paranoid and not have any signs of anxiety; it is also true that you can have anxiety with no signs of paranoia. No matter what the situation of your symptoms may be if you ever feel like you are overly anxious, or that you feel like you may be paranoid, the best thing you can do for yourself is to seek out medical help before your conditions become too severe.
*This article by Madeleine first appeared on Sunday Scaries.