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Yes, pandemic paranoia is real, experts say

It was like I had asked her to fork over her Social Security number and firstborn child.

“What do you need it for? What are you going to do with it?” my colleague asked me, Zoom eyes wide with fear.

“Whoa there,” I wanted to say. There was no need to get concerned.

I had simply asked a coworker for a straightforward piece of information that in normal times would have evoked little more than an “OK, no problem,” in response.

Of course, these aren’t normal times.

It wasn’t just my coworker. I noticed that so many people in my life — friends, family, even myself since I’m being honest — had taken a pill from the paranoid jar. Everyone seemed jumpier, more nervous, frightened, even when it came to topics that had little to do with the deadly contagion knocking on doors all around us. I talked to an immunocompromised ICU nurse, a schoolteacher, a transit worker’s spouse. All agreed they were more paranoid since Covid-19 overtook daily life.

“Especially with having a kiddo with a medical history,” said Stefani Seeley, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Texas. “We scrutinize every little thing we do now. Add to that the anxiety I have that our kids won’t get over the trauma of the experience,” she said.

Paranoia, it seemed, was just as widespread as the coronavirus, perhaps more.

Pandemic paranoia is a real thing

“The pandemic has brought on great uncertainty and stress,” said Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a New York City-based forensic psychiatrist and violence expert with a long list of achievements, including having taught at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School and served as a fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health and consultant to the World Health Organization. Lee is currently president of the World Mental Health Coalition.

The John Hopkins Psychiatry Guide defines paranoia as “a response to perceived threats that is heavily influenced by anxiety and fear, existing along a continuum of normal, reality-based experience to delusional beliefs.”

The symptoms of paranoia can range from the very subtle to completely overwhelming and can exist with or without other mental conditions, according to Lee and major medical associations. People don’t need to have diagnosable mental health disorders to have paranoid thoughts or feelings.

“Given the stress and uncertainty and the misinformation that is being provided by news outlets and different sources, it is difficult for people to feel a sense of calm, increasing people’s anxiety, which can lead to paranoid thoughts,” said Adam Borland, a Cleveland-based clinical psychologist who has seen an uptick in patients who are experiencing paranoid thoughts and feelings since Covid-19 became widespread.

The trifecta of the pandemic, required social isolation and social unrest has driven many of us to more extreme behavior and worries, including paranoia. The pandemic has also brought on an uncertain economic environment, where people worry about whether they might be on the verge of losing their livelihood (and with good reason, as many have lost their jobs). The active disinformation environment about both the pandemic and other issues perpetuated by historically trusted institutions, like the US government and office of the President, has also caused people to distrust the information they are receiving and the people disseminating it.

“The exceptionally prolonged lockdown because of ineffective management and the subsequent social disruptions and economic misery — in many ways worse than the Great Depression, with tremendous inequities, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and despair — are already leading to rampant drug addiction, depression, suicides, and homicides,” Lee said.

“Meanwhile, we now have a large segment of the population that has been encouraged and conditioned to avoid reality. When living in delusion, detached from reality, one naturally becomes paranoid because facts and evidence are constantly ‘attacking’ these false, cherished beliefs,” she said.

Learning to identify the paranoia

Paranoia isn’t new to me. I grew up in a house with a parent who had severe paranoia. I constantly questioned whether the information I was being fed was real or fantastical.

I have always been hyperaware of how paranoid thinking can take over your reality and have fought hard not to become that person who can no longer draw the line between fact and fiction.

That said, I have inherited the tendency to take any situation and imagine its extreme worst-case outcome. For many, that may feel like a terrible place to be mentally. For me, it has been justification for why I am always prepared, why I am at the leading edge of whatever may come next.

It’s why I stocked up on toilet paper and N95 masks when my wife was still telling me not to be ridiculous that Covid-19 would hit US shores. Still, when I feel the anxiety seize up in me, I have learned to acknowledge it. Then I work on envisioning swallowing it like a giant rock that no longer sits in my throat but is merely passing through.

Learning to identify your paranoia is the first step to mitigating it, Borland said. Intervention can range from self-applied to seeking professional medical help, depending on the severity of your symptoms and how much they are interfering with your ability to function in your daily life.

“This is really going to come down to communication between the individual and hopefully whatever sources of support they have in their life. It’s very easy for a thought to be planted like a seed. And it’s easy to water that, give it sunshine, even if the facts or information contradict that thought,” Borland said.

How to bat back the paranoid thoughts

The good news is that it’s possible to combat paranoia, at least the kind that is not medically diagnosable or connected to other mental health issues, on your own.

“Human beings are resilient and capable of handling great adversities, if we are in them together and have consistent guidance as well as psychological and social support,” Lee said.

You can start by acknowledging the paranoid thoughts and then work to create healthy daily routines, according to Borland. Set small, attainable goals like walking one mile every day or spending one hour connecting with your feelings or with someone else. Sleep, diet and social interaction are all important factors that feed good mental health.

“We underestimate the effects of boredom. And given news outlets and social (media) and having so much info at our fingertips, it’s easy to go down that rabbit hole,” Borland said.

If you observe a loved one experiencing paranoid thoughts, be careful about how you approach them, Borland said. Try to avoid the finger-pointing approach, and instead use “I statements” to let them know what you are noticing so that they are less defensive and more receptive to your help.

Still, it may be hard to fend off paranoid thoughts in ourselves or others.

“In a paranoid state, one will not be amenable to logic or evidence,” Lee said. The best bet is to work on changing the circumstances that put that person in a paranoid state to begin with.

Of course, one can’t magically make Covid-19 disappear, but we can work on creating distance between the influences that seem to exacerbate the paranoia. In the longer term, we can work on “fixing the socioeconomic conditions that led to the psychological vulnerability in the first place — which may include economic, racial, and gender inequalities,” Lee said via email.

If paranoia gets to the level where you feel you or a loved one might be a danger to themselves or others, seek professional help immediately.

Is paranoia ever good?

Too much of a good thing could be bad, but what about a little bit of a bad thing? Is there such a thing as healthy paranoia?

“Healthy paranoia or healthy anxiety can keep us aware and alert as a defense mechanism and protect ourselves from potential threats,” Borland said. (I’m glad I stocked up on masks and toilet paper.)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, for instance, have found that worry about climate change has led to behavioral changes that may actually drive solutions to the problem.

We must, though, remain aware that paranoia can take us to a place where those feelings can become problematic. Where we draw the line is not always clear.

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