Anxiety and paranoia are two separate conditions, but in some ways, they have a lot in common. Both represent fear, and cause people to dwell on negative experiences that otherwise may not be as big as they seem.
Many of those living with anxiety worry that they are paranoid, or get blamed for being paranoid by others. Are those with anxiety paranoid? Can anxiety cause paranoia? We explore these ideas in this article.
Are You Experiencing Paranoia?
Anxiety can affect the way you see yourself and others, which may feel like paranoia. The more severe the anxiety, the worse it may be. Our free 7-minute anxiety test will score your anxiety and provide you with treatment recommendations.
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Anxiety Changes Thoughts
An important component of anxiety is that anxiety can genuinely change thoughts in a way that you may not even notice. Those with anxiety are more likely to think negative thoughts in a way that is very similar to how paranoia is experienced.
If you are constantly feeling as though things are going wrong or assuming the worst, that may indicate that you have anxiety.
How Anxiety Creates Paranoia
Anxiety is not only psychological - it is biological. When you have anxiety, your brain chemistry is changed. Neurotransmitters that control emotions and mood start to misfire, and eventually, they start to affect the way you think. It feels natural - you may even believe the thoughts are justified - but they are very likely to be more negative they would be if you were anxiety free.
There are many ways in which this is similar to and may appear to be paranoia. Rest assured, paranoia and anxiety are completely different conditions. But there are some similarities. Here are some examples:
Worrying About Bad Things Happening
Both those with anxiety and those with paranoia often worry about worst case scenarios. For example, a child with anxiety would worry that their parents are going to get hurt in a car accident. A child with paranoia may worry that someone is after their parents to hurt them. Both are fairly similar.
Many of those with anxiety do often worry, especially about irrational things. Those with paranoia also tend to assume the worst, believing that these dangers are destiny.
Worrying that Something is Wrong With Themselves
During anxiety attacks, people often worry that something is wrong with their health. Some people develop health anxiety - constantly checking their symptoms online to see what's wrong with them and occasionally believing that they have a terrible disorder. They may even believe the doctor hasn't provided them with honest information.
Those with paranoia may worry the same thing. Though sometimes the worries are a bit more extreme (believing the doctor gave you an illness themselves, for example), the worry that something is wrong is often still there. They may become obsessive about their health in a way that resembles anxiety and see any ache and pain as a sign that doom is eminent.
Others View Them Differently
Finally, anxiety may cause others to view you differently. They may even believe you are paranoid. A common example occurs in those with social anxiety. When someone with social anxiety walks into a room, they often feel like eyes are on them and that people are judging them. Those with paranoia often feel the same way. Others may look at these behaviors as "being paranoid" and may share those thoughts with you in a way that is discouraging, but in reality, it is simply a part of that type of disorder.
Most forms of anxiety show some degree of this. Someone that has to wash their hands often because they're worried about germs may appear paranoid to others. Someone that jumps at loud noises because of their post-traumatic stress disorder may appear to be paranoid as well. All of these are anxiety disorders, yet they cause issues that are very similar to paranoia.
How to Tell the Difference Between Paranoia and an Anxiety Disorder
Despite all of these commonalities, these are two very different disorders. Anxiety disorders may cause behaviors that are similar to paranoia, and those with anxiety may even have some "paranoid tendencies" in the sense that they worry about things that may be irrational. But paranoia and anxiety are completely different.
For one thing, someone with severe paranoia often suffers from delusions, and no amount of counseling can cause them to truly believe it's a delusion. Paranoia is a consuming disorder, and there are rarely any breaks. Those with paranoia also tend to perceive danger and conspiracy even more than those with anxiety. Those with anxiety simply worry, and while their minds may go to worst-case scenarios, they still know that these are just worries. These conditions may sound like they have similarities, but from a clinical standpoint, they are incredibly different conditions.
You're Likely Not Paranoid - You Have Anxiety
Only a psychologist can diagnose your disorder, and tell you if you have anxiety or paranoia. But paranoia is surprisingly uncommon. Very few people develop those delusional tendencies, especially without the influence of drugs or schizophrenia.
You may have worries that sound like paranoia to others, but in reality, you simply have anxiety. And while no one wants to suffer from anxiety, the good news is that anxiety can always be treated.
I've helped many people that worry about their own paranoia, and I start them all off with my anxiety checklist. Fill it out to get a better snapshot of your anxiety. You'll see graphs where your anxiety is compared to others, and you can get treatment recommendations and find other information that will help you get the treatment you need.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 16, 2018.