Overcoming paranoia

Look after yourself

We’re more likely to be troubled by paranoia if we’re tired or run-down or very stressed. So make sure you eat healthily, get plenty of good-quality sleep, and exercise regularly. Make time too for things you enjoy: the more positive activities you have in your life, the less scope there’ll be for paranoia to take hold.

Drinking too much, and using illicit drugs, can sometimes trigger paranoid thoughts. If you think they may be a factor in your paranoia, cut back or stop completely.

Consider the pros and cons

As we’ve seen, underlying paranoia is a fundamental decision about whether or not to trust other people. As a device to help you explore your own approach to this issue, make a list of the pros and cons of both trusting people and mistrusting them. Have you got the balance right, do you think? Would you like to be less mistrustful? Are there experiences from your past that might be having too great an influence on how you see people now

Test out your thoughts

Paranoia can make people so anxious and afraid that they change their behaviour, avoiding the situations that trigger their fears. But this only reinforces their paranoia, because it robs them of the chance to discover whether or not their fears are justified.

Testing out your paranoid thoughts involves actively seeking out the situations you’re afraid of. That can be pretty nerve-wracking, so you need to go carefully. Draw up a list of tasks you find difficult and start with the relatively easy ones. Once you’re comfortable with those, gradually work your way up to the more difficult tasks.

Incidentally, don’t put yourself in situations where you’re likely to be at real risk. You may be worried about going out alone, for instance, but don’t test this by going into a dangerous neighbourhood at night. Concentrate on activities that most people would find reasonable and where you think your suspicious thoughts are probably exaggerated.

Let go of your paranoid thoughts

We’re bound to have suspicious thoughts from time to time. It’s unrealistic to think we can put a complete stop to them, but we can improve the way we deal with these thoughts when they do occur.

The trick is not to focus on them, to develop what’s known as a mindful attitude. Don’t fight your thoughts and don’t spend time thinking about them. Try to be detached. Watch the thought come to you, remind yourself that it doesn’t matter, and let it go off into the distance. Concentrate on what you’re doing, rather than what you’re thinking.

People often find it helps to repeat an encouraging phrase to themselves, for example “They’re only thoughts – they don’t matter”; “Keep going – you’re doing really well”; “These thoughts don’t scare me. I can cope.”

Share your fears

We know that people who don’t talk about their paranoid thoughts generally find them more upsetting. So confide in someone you trust. Getting another perspective on your worries can be really helpful.

Get to know your paranoia

Like all problems, it’s much easier to cope with our paranoid thoughts if we have a clear picture of them. So for the next seven days keep a diary of your paranoid thoughts – what they are, when they occur, and what might trigger them.

You may well find that particular situations tend to spark your paranoia (perhaps being very anxious or angry or bored, for example). And that will give you the chance to think how you can prevent these situations occurring, or at least how to deal with them better.

Incidentally, one of the great benefits of keeping a diary is that it gets your paranoid thoughts out of your head and onto paper. For many people, that can be a huge relief, and a terrific way of putting some distance between themselves and their paranoia.

Manage your worry

Worry is a very common reaction to paranoid thoughts. People fret about the harm they think other people intend towards them, and sometimes they also worry about what having these thoughts might mean (for example, that they’re going mad). But the more we worry, the more anxious and fearful we become. Worry feeds on worry.

So we need to learn to manage our worry. One very useful technique is to save up all your worrying for one half-hour session every day: your worry period. And instead of worrying, try focusing your energy on solving the problem that’s troubling you.

Challenge your paranoid thoughts

Choose a suspicious thought from your paranoia diary, and weigh up the evidence for and against it. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there anything that might suggest the thought is wrong?
    What would my family or friends say if I talked to them about the thought?
  • What would I say to a friend who came to me with a similar problem?
  • Are there any alternative explanations for what seems to have happened?
  • Are my thoughts based more on the way I feel than on solid evidence?
  • Have I been jumping to conclusions?
  • If I were feeling happier or less anxious or less tired, would I still see things in the same way?