Paranoia is a thought process characterized by excessive anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs concerning a perceived threat towards oneself. In the original Greek, παράνοια (paranoia) simply means madness (para = outside; nous = mind). Historically, this characterization was used to describe any delusional state.
Sometimes in common usage, the term paranoia is misused to describe a phobia. For example, a person may not want to fly out of fear the plane may crash. This does not in itself indicate paranoia, but rather a phobia. The lack of blame in this case usually points to the latter. An example of paranoia, however, would be fear that while watching an American Football game, the team huddle was talking about the person affected. An important feature of paranoid thinking is its centrality: that the paranoid person perceives themselves as central figures in an experienced scenario which may be either dangerous (persecutory) or self-exalting (grandiose) and interprets events which have no reference to them in reality as directed at or about them.
Most recently, the clinical use of the term has been used to describe delusions where the affected person believes they are being persecuted. Specifically, they have been defined as containing two central elements:
- The individual thinks that harm is occurring, or is going to occur, to him or her.
- The individual thinks that the persecutor has the intention to cause harm.
Paranoia is often associated with psychotic illnesses, sometimes schizophrenia, although attenuated features may be present in other infestation (delusional parasitosis); that the person is on a special quest or has been chosen by God (or another deity); that the person has had thoughts inserted or removed from conscious thought; or that the person's actions are being controlled by an external force. Therefore, in common usage, the term paranoid addresses a range of mental conditions, assumed by the use of the term to be of psychiatric origin, in which the subject is seen to generalize or project fears and anxieties onto the external world, particularly in the form of organized behavior focused on them. The syndrome is applied equally to powerful people like executives obsessed with takeover bids or political leaders convinced of plots against them, and to common people who believe for instance that shadowy agencies are operating against them.
The term paranoia was used to describe a mental illness in which a delusional belief is the sole or most prominent feature. In his original attempt at classifying different forms of mental illness, Kraepelin used the term pure paranoia to describe a condition where a delusion was present, but without any apparent deterioration in intellectual abilities and without any of the other features of dementia praecox, the condition later renamed schizophrenia. Notably, in his definition, the belief does not have to be persecutory to be classified as paranoid, so any number of delusional beliefs can be classified as paranoia. For example, a person who has the sole delusional belief that they are an important religious figure would be classified by Kraepelin as having 'pure paranoia'. Even at the present time, a delusion need not be suspicious or fearful to be classified as paranoid. A person might be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic without delusions of persecution, simply because their delusions refer mainly to themselves, such as believing they are a CIA agent or a famous member of royalty.
- ^ Freeman, D. & Garety, P.A. (2004) Paranoia: The Psychology of Persecutory Delusions. Hove: PsychoIogy Press. ISBN 1-84169-522-X
- ^ Richard Locke, book review for The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1973
- Farrell, John. Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Cornell University Press, 2006).
- Freeman, D. & Garety, P.A. (2004) Paranoia: The Psychology of Persecutory Delusions. Hove: Psychology Press. ISBN 1-84169-522-X
- Igmade (Stephan Trüby et al., eds.), 5 Codes: Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror", Birkhäuser 2006. ISBN 3-7643-7598-1
- Kantor, Martin. (2004) Understanding Paranoia: A Guide for Professionals, Families, and Sufferers. Westport: Praeger Press. ISBN 0-275-98152-5
- Munro, A. (1999) Delusional disorder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-58180-X
- Sims, A. (2002) Symptoms in the mind: An introduction to descriptive psychopathology (3rd edition). Edinburgh: Elsevier Science Ltd. ISBN 0-7020-2627-1
- Siegel, Ronald K. (1994) Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia. New York: Crown.
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