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Paranoia is an unfounded or exaggerated distrust of others, sometimes reaching delusional proportions. Paranoid individuals constantly suspect the motives of those around them, and believe that certain individuals, or people in general, are "out to get them."
Paranoid perceptions and behavior may appear as features of a number of mental illnesses, including depression and dementia, but are most prominent in three types of psychological disorders: paranoid schizophrenia, delusional disorder (persecutory type), and paranoid personality disorder (PPD).
Individuals with paranoid schizophrenia and persecutory delusional disorder experience what is known as persecutory delusions: an irrational, yet unshakable, belief that someone is plotting against them. Persecutory delusions in paranoid schizophrenia are bizarre, sometimes grandiose, and often accompanied by auditory hallucinations. Delusions experienced by individuals with delusional disorder are more plausible than those experienced by paranoid schizophrenics; not bizarre, though still unjustified. Individuals with delusional disorder may seem offbeat or quirky rather than mentally ill, and, as such, may never seek treatment.
Persons with paranoid personality disorder tend to be self-centered, self-important, defensive, and emotionally distant. Their paranoia manifests itself in constant suspicions rather than full-blown delusions. The disorder often impedes social and personal relationships and career advancement. Some individuals with PPD are described as "litigious," as they are constantly initiating frivolous law suits. PPD is more common in men than in women, and typically begins in early adulthood.
The exact cause of paranoia is unknown. Potential causal factors may be genetics, neurological abnormalities, changes in brain chemistry, and stress. Paranoia is also a possible side effect of drug use and abuse (for example, alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, PCP). Acute, or short term, paranoia may occur in some individuals overwhelmed by stress.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), the diagnostic standard for mental health professionals in the United States, lists the following symptoms for paranoid personality disorder:
Author Info: Paula Anne Ford-Martin, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 2002This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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