Paranoia and the pandemic – there is a link

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  • In times of uncertainty, paranoia is more prevalent
  • According to a new study, this is especially the case during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • While paranoia is usually a symptom of mental illness, it becomes more common during certain events

Have you been feeling trapped in a spiral of irrational, negative thoughts during the current Covid-19 pandemic? Is the uncertainty of events causing you to think of the worst possible scenarios?

You are certainly not the only one. According to a new study by researchers at Yale University, which was published in the journal eLife, there is a link between unprecedented global events, uncertainty and paranoia.

What is paranoia?

Paranoia can be described as a mental condition characterised by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy or exaggerated self-importance, especially in an organised system.

While most people tend to experience these exaggerated, irrational thoughts from time to time, chronic paranoia is often a debilitating, extremely unpleasant symptom of illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and paranoid personality disorder.

When you experience paranoia, you may think that “someone or something is out to get you”, you may feel misunderstood, you may feel a mistrust, especially in organised systems such as the government, you may feel isolated and your relationships might even fall apart because of this.

Paranoia and a pandemic – what the researchers say

You may have experienced many jarring, frustrating, even irrational thoughts during the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, but according to the latest study from Yale University, these are situational and not necessarily linked to a chronic mental illness.

The reason for increasing paranoia is because we don’t feel in control of our current situation and there is no longer as much of a sense of certainty.

"When our world changes unexpectedly, we want to blame that volatility on somebody, to make sense of it, and perhaps neutralise it,'' stated Yale's Philip Corlett, associate professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study in a press release. "Historically, in times of upheaval, such as the great fire of ancient Rome in 64 C.E. or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking increased."

This rings true during the Covid-19 situation, as many people believe in various conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic.

Where does the paranoia stem from?

According to the research, the prevailing theory is that paranoia stems from an inability to accurately assess social threat. But according to authors Corlett and Erin Reed from Yale, it is hypothesised that paranoia is rooted in a more basic mechanism that is triggered by uncertainty, even when there is no actual social threat.

"We think of the brain as a prediction machine; unexpected change, whether social or not, may constitute a type of threat. It limits the brain's ability to make predictions," Reed said. "Paranoia may be a response to uncertainty in general, and social interactions can be particularly complex and difficult to predict."

The researchers conducted a series of experiments among subjects with various levels of paranoia. One of the experiments involved a card game, where the best choices of success were changed secretly. People with low levels of paranoia didn’t immediately assume that the best choice changed, but those with paranoia expected this immediately and changed their choices even after they won.

As the levels of uncertainty changed suddenly, even those participants with low-level paranoia started acting paranoid.

Why paranoia can be dangerous during a pandemic

Dr Elliot B. Martin, a psychiatrist from Newton Massachusetts, explained in Psychiatric Times that he had several sudden cases of psychosis in their emergency rooms, which he has started to refer to as “corona psychosis”.

According to him, the psychological effects of the virus have been overwhelming, both for his regular patients and healthcare providers. “Healthcare workers, especially those used to a degree of predictability, seem to be susceptible to the stress of uncertainty and loss of control engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic,” he wrote.

Not only can this temporary paranoia take a toll on one’s mental and physical health, but irrational thoughts can lead to irresponsible actions. When someone, for instance, believes that the current pandemic is “not real”, there is a bigger chance of them spreading damaging misinformation and exposing themselves to possible infections.

How to cope

This new situation hasn’t been easy for many, whether it meant a sudden loss of income, a halt in plans, sudden isolation from friends and family, or the fear of getting sick. But there are small ways to take care of your mental health:

  • Don’t always focus on what’s on your mind, but focus on the evidence in front of you, suggests Dr Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist.
  • Control the things you can. If you are scared of getting infected, repeat to yourself that you can protect yourself by washing your hands, keeping your distance and wearing a mask.
  •  Set aside time to do something “offline” such as exercise, reading a book or meditating, especially when you are still working from home.
  • Focus on eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.
  • Stay in contact with friends and family through digital methods.
  • Avoid speculation and focus only on facts and official information.
  • If you feel out of control, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help from a psychiatrist or counsellor.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed and feel like you need help, you can reach SADAG on their 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789.

For a suicide emergency, dial 0800 567 567. 

READ | Mental health effects of Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown – and concern over suicide risk

READ | Avoiding fear, anxiety while you self-quarantine

READ | Opinion: the mental health effects of Covid-19 are as important to address as the physical effects

Image credit: David Garrison from Pexels

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