What causes paranoid thoughts?

Paranoia is a complex blend of thoughts and feelings, so it’s unlikely to have one simple cause. A combination of factors is likely to play a role.

Life events

A sudden increase in stress can be very significant. If you have lost a job or a relationship has ended, this can make you feel very isolated and might mean that you turn inwards and feel insecure or under threat. Life events that involve a betrayal or emotional pain for example, if you are bullied in your workplace, or your home is burgled, 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 rather than connected. Media reports of crime, terrorism, violence and other social issues might also play a role in triggering paranoid feelings. High levels of stress associated with modern lifestyles might also put you at greater risk.

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression can act as triggers for paranoid thoughts in some people. If you’re anxious you are likely to be on edge and more fearful than normal. Depression can lower your self-esteem and make you more likely to misinterpret other people’s intentions towards you.

Poor sleep

If you have trouble sleeping this can also have a big impact on paranoia. Fears and worries can develop late at night when you are alone with your thoughts and feeling constantly tired can trigger feelings of insecurity.

The effects of drugs and alcohol

Chemicals can sometimes be a factor. Drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, ecstasy, LSD and amphetamine can all trigger paranoia. So do certain steroids taken by some athletes and weightlifters. Certain insecticides, fuel and paint have also been associated with symptoms. (See ‘the mental health effects of street drugs’.)

Childhood influences

What happened in your childhood might contribute to your feelings of paranoia. If you were brought up to believe that the world is a very unsafe place and that people are untrustworthy, this might affect the way you think as an adult. If your childhood was abusive or neglectful you are also likely to feel mistrustful and suspicious of others.

Physical causes

Paranoia, as a symptom, is linked with 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.

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