Am I paranoid about this guy

The pursuer in the head

On average, 10 to 15 percent of people regularly have these thoughts: Is this shady guy chasing me in the car behind me? Is me being whispered behind my back? Is my neighbor secretly watching me? The keyword is paranoia - defined as the unfounded or exaggerated fear that someone is trying to harm you. Until a few years ago, the term was mainly associated with the clinical picture of schizophrenia. "But everyone has probably experienced such thoughts before," says Daniel Freeman, who studies the phenomenon at King’s College in London. "However, paranoia can take on very different forms: from a brief, slight discomfort to bizarre, persistent persecution ideas that make a normal life impossible."

About three to five percent of the population suffer from such severe paranoia. They believe, for example, that encrypted messages are broadcast about them on television or that their thoughts are controlled by others. Above all, however, those affected suffer from their strange ideas: They have panic fears and often live completely isolated out of distrust of others.

But how does paranoia actually come about? "Life is full of confusing, ambiguous experiences that humans seek explanations for," explains Freeman. "Paranoid thoughts are a form of explanation - but a failed one."

One reason for this is apparently certain abnormalities in thinking, the researcher found out. These are clearly shown in the “Beads Task”: a task in which the test subjects are asked to guess which of two vessels the glass beads that the experimenter shows them come from. "Test subjects with paranoia often come to a decision after the first or second bullet," reports Freeman. “So they make their decisions based on insufficient information. And that is exactly what can keep paranoid thoughts going. Because in order to recognize the weak points of such thoughts, you have to evaluate all information appropriately - and that takes time. "

Another peculiarity could often be observed in people with paranoia: so-called minor irregularities in perception. These are often related to physical arousal caused by stress, fear, or anger. “In situations like this, it can be the case, for example, that someone perceives colors or sounds particularly intensely,” explains Freeman. "Some people also have the feeling that their thoughts no longer belong to themselves or that everything around them is unreal."

Lack of sleep or extreme lack of irritation can also trigger such perceptions, which in extreme cases also include hallucinations. “We don't yet know why only some people react to these experiences with fear and confusion,” says Freeman. "However, they increase the likelihood of paranoid thoughts considerably."

The researchers obtained further information about the background to the paranoia in an unusual experiment. They put their test subjects into a car on the London Underground using virtual reality glasses. The participants were surrounded by other passengers who all had neutral expressions. While most of the test subjects found the four-minute drive to be harmless, some also found the experience threatening. “One guy seemed kind of seedy. So whether he wanted to attack someone or plant a bomb, ”reported one of the participants. The evaluation of the data showed that those affected were relatively anxious overall. They also rated themselves and their environment more negatively than others. “It is precisely these characteristics that can make someone feel threatened or persecuted quickly,” explains Freeman.

So it is not surprising that people who are plagued by persecution ideas often fear that they will eventually go crazy. And indeed, a small number of them will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime. However, this risk is particularly increased when a number of risk factors are present, as a research team led by Jim van Os from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands found out. “The most important risks are genetic predisposition and drug use,” says Rebecca Kuepper, research associate in van Os ‘working group. "In addition, traumatic experiences such as sexual or physical violence, bullying and discrimination can increase the risk of getting seriously ill." The evaluation of the persecution thoughts also turned out to be significant: "When someone reacts to it with great concern and constantly worries about it , the symptoms tend to increase, ”explains Kuepper.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can get a grip on your paranoid thoughts - or at least live with them better. “It is often helpful to question one's thoughts and look for evidence to the contrary,” says Freeman. “You can also learn to let go of them and no longer deal with them all the time. Activities that are fun and contact with other people are particularly helpful. "

ddp / - Christine Amrhein
May 20, 2010