The paranoid generation: Convinced the whole world's out to get you Sure your husband's cheating You're not alone
One January, around ten years ago, I was feeling light-headed. All week, I’d been oddly detached, as though I was watching myself from a distance.
A couple of friends were staying with us, and since their arrival five days before, I’d been suffering inexplicable dizzy spells, accompanied by a racing heart. There was no doubt in my mind — they’d drugged me for a joke. Both of them had dabbled as teenagers, it made perfect sense.
Knowing my fear of losing control, I reasoned, this pair of pranksters would think it ‘hilarious’ to spike my morning tea with LSD or some such terrifying substance.
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Convinced I was about to start hallucinating, my panic attack built to a crescendo. It was only a terrified phone call to my parents, who pointed out that my paranoia was more likely to be the result of stress and a lack of sleep, that stopped me flinging wild accusations at my — perfectly innocent — houseguests.
Four children under 12, a demanding career and the pressure of Christmas had left me exhausted and drinking a little too much. Of course no one had drugged me, but my brief conviction otherwise gave me a temporary insight into the horror of paranoia.
A distressing mental disorder, paranoia is significantly on the rise in the UK, particularly among women, yet it’s rarely talked about. ‘Paranoia is an unfounded or exaggerated fear that others deliberately intend to cause us harm,’ says Daniel Freeman, author of Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, and professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University.
In a study involving interviews with 1,200 people, Professor Freeman and his researchers found levels of paranoia are much higher than previously suspected — almost on a par with depression. For many people these fears may just be passing thoughts, but even so the figures suggested that more than 40 per cent of us are convinced that negative comments are being made behind our backs, 20 per cent worry about being observed, or followed, and 5 per cent are afraid that there is a deliberate conspiracy to do us harm.
And where we might once have dismissed paranoia as a disorder suffered by drug users or schizophrenics, it’s now a growing problem for ordinary, middle-class women.
‘Professional, well-educated women seem to be suffering increasingly,’ agrees Professor Freeman. ‘Often it starts with anxiety that you’re not coping well at work, or stems from constantly reading bad news, be it about job losses or divorce rates — we start to think we’ll be next.’
Lack of sleep has been identified as a significant factor in paranoia. And, with more women than men prone to sleeplessness, either because of peri-menstrual hormone changes that can cause insomnia, or because they are getting up in the night with young children, they are also most vulnerable, says Professor Freeman.
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And worryingly for those of us who ‘take the edge off’ the day with wine, alcohol carries the same risk. ‘More women are drinking heavily now, and alcohol can precipitate paranoid illnesses,’ warns consultant psychiatrist Dr Adrian Winbow at London’s Fitzroy Square Hospital.
That was the case for Emma Cox, 37, who works in human resources. ‘I have three young stepchildren and a demanding job,’ she says. ‘A few years ago, I started to drink more to cope with stress. I didn’t think it was a problem but gradually, I began to feel that my husband didn’t really love me. I believed he was still in love with his ex and, the more he reassured me, the more I’d say: “Well, you would say that.”
‘He couldn’t win. If he was five minutes late home, I thought he’d been phoning her. I started checking his calls and one day I even followed him. He didn’t go near her, but I just thought: “He must have known I was watching.” I’d justify all my thoughts, rather than question what was causing them.’
It was only when Emma cut down her drinking — from a couple of glasses of wine every night to just drinking at weekends — and they went on holiday that she felt able to confront her paranoia. ‘I got it all out, and Tom listened. He was shocked at how deep my paranoia had become — until then, I think he’d just imagined I was a bit insecure.
‘The fear began to go away once I admitted I was finding it hard to cope and couldn’t believe he really found me lovable. Over the next few weeks, he let me seek reassurance whenever I felt suspicious. Knowing he understood helped me to rein myself in, and focus on rational explanations.’
Paranoia, like Emma’s conviction that she wasn’t loved, can stem from plausible fears — things you may see happening around you, or hear of happening to others.
‘Often, the paranoia will be that a partner is having an affair; or related to feeling low self-esteem at work — you may become convinced that everyone is laughing behind your back,’ explains Professor Freeman. ‘But fears are not facts — and when you’re unable to tell the difference, that’s when it’s become a problem.’
Even women who have previously prided themselves on being rational can be susceptible if a seed of fear is planted and they let their imagination run away with them, as Anna Welsh admits.
‘The 9/11 attacks sparked my fears,’ says the 40-year-old full-time mother. ‘Just after the Tube bombings in London, I had to fly to America and I couldn’t shake the spectre of terrorism from my mind. When I got home, I became obsessed — reading everything I could about it, trying to work out the odds of an attack. Whenever I’m in a station or airport, I feel sick, as if the terrorists know I’m there and are after me.’
Anna now avoids travel, ‘But it’s getting just as bad in shopping centres,’ she says. ‘My husband keeps reminding me it isn’t rational, but I have a hundred counter-arguments to justify my fears.’
Trigger: Lack of sleep has been identified as a significant factor in paranoia. And women are more likely than men prone to sleeplessness
Anna has always struggled with anxiety. ‘At university I was convinced I’d fail my exams and I used to be scared that my partner would go back to his ex,’ she admits, ‘but I used to be able to manage my fears better. Now, I’ve got to the point where it’s starting to seem easier if I just don’t go out.’
It’s not just Anna who is affected by her paranoia — her children, aged six and nine, are beginning to suffer, too. ‘I try to keep my worries from the kids, but the other day, my eldest, Jen, wanted to go shopping with a friend’s family. I couldn’t bear the thought of her in a big shopping centre, where a bomb might go off, so I said no, without telling her why.’
Anna’s feelings are not unusual, says Professor Freeman, who believes that dramatic rolling TV news, conspiracy theories on the internet and our exaggerated awareness of risk fuel a climate of fear.
‘Paranoid thoughts stem from a perfectly natural instinct to explain the world around us,’ says Professor Freeman. ‘But when we’re stressed and feeling low, tired, anxious or irritable, our explanations are likely to be negative, and we think the worst.’ There is also a ‘snowball effect’ — once the paranoia has taken hold, it grows with every new fearful thought.
Not surprisingly, stress at work is an increasingly common source of paranoia. ‘We have a far more flexible employment market, in which the idea of a job for life has long gone,’ says Freeman.
‘It’s been replaced by much greater mobility of employees, and more reliance on short-term contracts and part-time positions, all of which breeds uncertainty, stress and fuels competition, encouraging us to see our colleagues as rivals and potential threats.’
One in three people in the UK suffer from paranoid or suspicious fears, clinical psychologists have found
This is something 38-year-old accountant Lucy Rodd, from Southampton, relates to. ‘I often feel that colleagues are whispering about me behind my back,’ she says. ‘I feel deeply hurt, because I suspect they’re talking about how socially inept or stupid I am. Last week I turned down a drink with a colleague, because I was convinced she’d been put up to it by our manager.’
The paranoia started, says Lucy, on her first day. ‘I was given the job over an in-house candidate, who everyone liked. I was scared they’d all hate me, and so I was too shy to approach anyone. Now, I have lunch on my own every day. Sometimes, I realise how crazy my feelings must seem. My husband is getting tired of reassuring me.’
She’s not alone in her fears. Sally Ingliss, 43, from Leeds, lost her previous job due to a backstabbing colleague, and now struggles to believe that others have no hidden agenda. ‘I’m very paranoid about anything to do with work,’ she says. ‘I’m a manager in a big office department and I’m convinced everyone is out to get me, talking about me behind my back all the time and waiting for me to fail.’
Sally’s experience is not unusual — it can take just one event to trigger paranoia in an already vulnerable person, says Dr Winbow. ‘Perhaps they were made redundant, or their partner had an affair — and there is also a genetic tendency.’
There may also be an element of learned behaviour. If you grow up with a paranoid parent, it’s harder to separate reality from fear.
But it’s not just our parents who can influence our paranoia.
Finding a cure: Meditation, finding a hobby that calms you, or simply working on building your own self-esteem can help
‘Paranoia involving fear of close family and friends could be due to past hurt and disappointments,’ says Dr Charlie Alcock, clinical psychologist and CEO of mental health charity MAC-UK.
‘Suspicions about “hidden scheming” are often the result of relationships that seem pleasant on the surface, but which carry a hidden layer of anger and aggression underneath.’ If you are plagued by paranoia, one approach that’s showing excellent results is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which, over ten to 20 weekly sessions, ‘retrains’ the brain to see events and feelings from a different perspective, helping you to deal with the distress that paranoia can cause.
Other sufferers report that meditation, finding a hobby that calms them, or simply working on building their own self-esteem can help.
Most crucially, regulate your approach to health. While it’s important to take medical advice (and some people who can’t be helped otherwise may even require anti-psychotic medication), there’s plenty that can help ease paranoid thoughts without pills.
Keeping your fears secret will only fuel them — so air them in front of rational friends and loved ones to help you regain perspective. ‘Ask yourself what your best friend would say, and always remember, thoughts aren’t facts,’ says Professor Freeman.
‘Take care of the basics: make sure you are sleeping and eating well, and cut down on drinking. The better your mood, the less likely you’ll be to feel suspicious.’
Some names have been changed