Is There a Difference between Paranoia and Delusional Disorders?
At some point in everyone’s life, they feel anxious or afraid due to a mistaken or false belief. Typically, however, the individual will realize that they were mistaken, and that their paranoia or delusion was not reality. However, some people experience persistent paranoia or delusions, which can mean they have a mental health problem.
Paranoia and delusional disorder are similar conditions in many ways, and they can be easily mixed up. They are not, however, the same mental health condition, as they have fundamental differences.
When a person believes others are “out to get” them; trying to harm or stalk them; or watching, hunting, spying, or paying excessive attention to them for no reason, they may be experiencing paranoia. This condition can be a symptom or side effect of several mental illnesses, as well as intoxication or drug abuse.
When a person experiences paranoia, they may display symptoms such as:
- Difficulty believing or trusting others
- Becoming easily offended
- Being unable to understand or cope with criticism
- Believing remarks are intended differently, especially harmfully
- Attempting to find underlying meaning or messages in a conversation or a look
- Acting defensively
- Inability to compromise
- Inability to let go of past transgressions even after an apology
- Assuming that people around them dislike them, even if they say or do things to the contrary
- Believing others are lying to them or scheming against them
- Finding relationships difficult to maintain due to problems developing trust
- Constantly feeling threatened by strangers and/or loved ones
- Feeling persecuted when bad things happen, no matter how large or small
- Believing in conspiracy theories
Delusional disorder is a condition in which a person experiences non-schizophrenic delusions about the people in their lives and the world around them. For example, a person may believe that a famous individual is on love with them, or that they are being spied on by a coworker. Typically, a person with delusional disorder acts normal and can function in everyday life, although they may also, at times, display paranoia or other symptoms related to their delusion.
Different types of delusions show different symptoms. The five types of delusions experienced by people with this disorder as well as the symptoms displayed are outlined below.
- Erotomanic: This is the belief that a person with higher social or financial standing, such as a famous movie star, is in love with the individual. This can lead to stalking and obsession with the object of the delusion.
- Grandiose: This involves the false belief that the individual has a special power, ability, relationship, or feature not shared with anyone else. For example, the individual might believe they have the power of flight or that they have excessive luck.
- Jealous: This is the belief that a lover or former lover is unfaithful or intentionally harmful. Paranoia about the loved one’s words and actions can be a symptom of jealous delusions.
- Persecutory: This is a delusion in which a person believes they are being threatened, mistreated, or will be harmed in the future. The common sense of the paranoia is that someone or something is “out to get” the individual.
- Somatic: This is a paranoid delusion in which a person believes they have an illness, disability, or physical defect.
A person with delusional disorder may experience one type of delusion or a few simultaneously. For example, a person may believe that a spouse is slowly poisoning them.
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Paranoia is a persistent feeling that is a symptom of some conditions, including intoxication on drugs like cocaine, LSD, bath salts, or marijuana. There are other mental health issues that are the primary causes of paranoia and defined largely by the consistent display and experience of paranoia. These are:
- Paranoid personality disorder: Defined as the mildest form of paranoia, an individual with this condition may distrust the world around them, but they are still able to function in relationships, maintain employment, and participate in social activities.
- Delusional (paranoid) disorder: A person with this condition holds one major false belief, or delusion, typically without any other signs of mental illness. For example, a person with persecution delusions will believe that others are talking about them behind their back, spying on them, and actively plotting to harm them. People with hypochondria believe they suffer from a mysterious illness or illnesses and need immediate medical attention.
- Paranoid schizophrenia: This is the most severe type of paranoia, and it involves strange, baseless delusions, such as the belief that thoughts are being spied on by a government agency. Hallucinations are common with this form of schizophrenia. People struggling with this condition do not function well in society and need consistent treatment.
The causes of delusional disorder are either genetic, biological/organic, or environmental/psychological. People with close family members who experience similar disorders are at a higher risk for delusional disorder; an injury to the brain may lead to delusional disorder; substance abuse or addiction may trigger delusional disorder; or people who are socially isolated may develop this condition.
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How Is It Diagnosed
Paranoia can be a diagnostic tool to find a deeper mental health issue, but in the above conditions, it is the primary affecting symptom. Genetics may cause these conditions, as can brain damage due to an illness, injury, or substance abuse. Traumatic events in life, such as experiencing conflict in war or childhood sexual trauma, can also trigger these conditions.
To diagnose paranoia, a physician will take a medical history, conduct a physical examination, and perform psychological tests or refer the individual to a psychologist for a questionnaire or interview appointment. It is important to find the cause of the paranoia, such as a physical condition or other mental health issue, so the condition can be treated appropriately. Multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other underlying medical conditions can cause paranoia and should be treated differently than a mental illness.
Therapy is one of the best ways to help people struggling with paranoia improve their social functioning. They can learn coping skills, techniques to reduce anxiety, and how to build trust in others or their surroundings. Unfortunately, people experiencing paranoia may have difficulty trusting their therapist and will not be willing to talk openly about their experiences, so anti-anxiety or antipsychotic medications can help ease symptoms. In extreme cases of paranoia, people may be hospitalized to prevent them from harming themselves or others.
In order to receive a diagnosis of delusional disorder, a person must experience symptoms for at least one month, with no other, prior mental health issue (such as schizophrenia) as the cause. The person experiencing delusions will also undergo a physical exam and blood tests to rule out other underlying causes. If there are no chronic illnesses or infections causing the delusions, the person will be referred to a psychologist for an interview appointment or another professional who has experience understanding and diagnosing delusional disorder.
Once the diagnosis has been confirmed as delusional disorder, the individual will begin a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Studies show that antipsychotic medications help the individual improve enough that they can understand reality and the need for therapeutic help. In some milder cases, the individual may receive anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants. This allows them to undergo individual therapy, learn coping skills, recognize delusions as inaccurate or false, and learn how to manage stress or difficult feelings. Sometimes, the individual will be hospitalized in order to stop them from harming themselves or others during violent or frightening delusions.
Professional Help Is Needed
Unfortunately, it is unlikely for an individual experiencing paranoia or delusions to believe that they need help even when they begin to suffer. Loved ones of people who begin displaying strange beliefs or behaviors, especially of the paranoid, violent, or grandiose kind, should seek help for their loved one immediately. Substance abuse, physical illness, brain injury, trauma, and more can all cause either paranoia or delusional disorder, and for a person to lead a full, happy life, it is important for them to get help to overcome these conditions.