Your friends chuckle after you excuse yourself to use the bathroom. They must be mocking you. Your boss didn't say "hello" in the hallway—so you're about to be fired. A woman bumps into you at the store. It must be intentional. Strangers on the street are cloaking pistols; your child is destined to be kidnapped en route to school. The government is monitoring your E-mails.
If your friends are kidding you about paranoia, it turns out they might not be all that far off. Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at The Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and one of the world's leading authorities on paranoia, notes in Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, a book new to U.S. stores this week, that an unfounded or exaggerated distrust of others, once believed only to be a mark of severe mental illness, is actually commonly experienced by ordinary people and appears to be on the rise. Estimates suggest that 1 in 4 of us, or about a quarter of the population, is routinely plagued by paranoid thoughts, and Freeman blames the media's affinity for repeated, graphic, extreme reports of threats along with unprecedented levels of city dwelling. Paranoia rates are twice as high in urban areas as in rural ones, he says.
Freeman doesn't suggest that there aren't legitimate threats in the world but that more people are struggling with assessing them accurately. When on chronic high alert, an ambiguous situation is apt to seem dangerous; a neutral intent, malignant. "Sometimes, we just get it wrong," he says. (Recall an incident earlier this month when nine Muslims were booted from an airplane after other passengers interpreted their reportedly benign remarks suspiciously.)
Freeman cites an example of the downside of overreacting in his book, cowritten with his brother, writer and editor Jason Freeman. Despite the relatively low risk, parents are often so concerned with keeping their children safely away from pedophiles that they quarantine them indoors, creating a real threat to their well being. Millions of U.S. children are overweight, which puts them at risk for heart troubles, diabetes, and other serious health problems. That far outweighs the risk of kidnap. Same with terrorism, Freeman notes. Cigarette-related illness and traffic accidents kill many multiples of Americans annually of the number of lives claimed by the9/11 attacks.
"People are very edgy right now," says Dennis Combs, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas—Tyler who also believes that paranoia is mounting. The economic slump doesn't help matters, he says, as people facing layoffs may be more apt to question the motives of coworkers. His own research has found paranoid thoughts to be prevalent among members of minority groups; they are more likely to feel that they're being monitored, say, when they're just trying to buy groceries. But he's also found that ordinary college students have paranoid thoughts. All the suspicions aren't likely good for us, Freeman says, referencing a study of 8,000 people across 40 U.S. states showing that areas with higher levels of mistrust had less social cohesion and higher death rates. Just a 10 percent boost in trust levels was associated with an 8 percent drop in death rates, he says.
For most people, day-to-day paranoid thoughts are fleeting and easily shaken. For others, however, they become believable and begin to interfere with their lives. The effects can be visceral. Those affected can begin taking precautions against very rare events. They can be overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, and emotional problems, which may erode relationships, says Combs. "We withdraw, we avoid, and we lose contact with people," Freeman explains. If every time a person is with friends, he is paranoid about what they will say when he gets up or is suspicious of what a smile means, for instance, he misses the opportunity to become engaged and becomes overly self-focused. That creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. People sense the insecurity and conclude the person's not very good company. "You get confirmation of your fears," says Freeman.
But paranoia can also be protective, reminds longtime clinical psychologist Martin Harrow, a professor of psychology with the University of IllinoisChicago's psychiatry department. Didn't get that promotion? The boss must not like women. Didn't earn an A? The instructor must harbor a grudge. Though this sort of thinking is unrealistic, some experts have theorized that a little paranoia can ward off depression in some people. "It may arise," he says, "to avoid blaming ourselves."