Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can lead to a wide range of symptoms that can vary from person to person. Some of the potential effects include feelings that are commonly related to paranoia, such as the belief that you can’t trust others or that people are seeking to harm you in some way. Experiencing paranoia with PTSD can make it challenging to seek help, but there are effective treatments available.
Below, we’ll explore the connection between PTSD and paranoia, how both can affect you, and how to alleviate symptoms of these mental health challenges.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that typically develops as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Many people instinctively associate PTSD with veterans who have served in war. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as ‘shell shock’ during the years of World War I and ‘combat fatigue’ after World War II, but PTSD does not just happen to combat veterans." The condition can be caused by a variety of traumatic events. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives.
Someone can experience symptoms of PTSD after almost any type of event or situation that was traumatic for them. In some cases, it doesn't even need to be something they experienced personally; witnessing or receiving news of something traumatic can also sometimes lead to PTSD. PTSD can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed war, accidents, sexual assault, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, domestic violence, and a variety of other situations.
Symptoms Of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD can vary from one person to the next, depending on the traumatic event they experienced, their mental health history, and other factors. The symptoms typically begin to show within a few months, but it could be years before a person shows signs. Symptoms need to be present for at least a month before a PTSD diagnosis can be made. However, that doesn't mean that you need to wait for a month to seek help and treatment if you have the symptoms described below.
The symptoms of PTSD can be divided into four categories:
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- A tendency to reexperience an event
Negative Thoughts And Feelings
After traumatic events, some people start believing that there is no one they can trust, or they may feel guilt and shame about the situation they experienced. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy or experience consistent feelings of fear.
When someone has PTSD, they may experience frequent unwanted memories of a traumatic event. They may also experience nightmares in which they relive the event over and over. Some people experience flashbacks that make them feel that the situation is actually happening and that they are in the middle of it again.
Avoidance behaviors are those that limit exposure to certain stimuli because they remind a person of the traumatic event that they don't want to relive. Stimuli that could be triggering include people, conversations, locations, and objects.
A person with reactive symptoms may experience increased irritability, angry outbursts, or self-destructive behaviors. These symptoms can make it difficult for them to sleep or concentrate.
What Is Paranoia?
Paranoia is a state of mind characterized by distrust of others and high levels of fear and anxiety. A person with paranoia is typically suspicious of other people and may think that others are seeking to harm them in some way. They may believe in conspiracies or feel that others are threatening them. When left untreated, paranoia can seriously impact an individual’s ability to function.
Symptoms Of Paranoia
The symptoms of paranoia may vary from person to person, but the following are some common symptoms:
- Suspicion and mistrust: An individual may feel that family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers have ulterior motives or are planning to harm them.
- A tendency to read too much into someone else's behavior: An individual with paranoia may try hard to pick up on looks or a tone of voice that may signal deceit or malicious intent.
- Defensive and argumentative behavior. Someone experiencing paranoia may seem defensive during conversations.
- A tendency to look for hidden messages. When a person experiences paranoia, they may search for hidden messages in things like newspapers or billboards.
PTSD And Paranoia
While paranoia is generally not considered a symptom of PTSD, it can be a common result of the feelings that trauma can produce. Paranoia can be particularly common in PTSD caused by an individual, such as in cases of assault.
One study examined the link between paranoia and PTSD in people who had experienced assault. The researchers found that 80% of people experienced heightened fear of others—a primary characteristic of paranoia. The study found that "paranoia after an assault may be common and distinguishable from PTSD but predicted by a strikingly similar range of factors."
Hypervigilance can mimic paranoia in many ways. You may notice elevated blood pressure, increased jumpiness, and an extreme focus on your environment, which can intensify feelings of panic or fear. Because PTSD often causes exaggerated fears, behavior associated with paranoia may be common at times. If paranoia is not managed properly, though, it can lead to worsening feelings of fear and anxiety.
Treatments Options For PTSD And Paranoia
Because of the potential negative effects of trauma, including paranoia, it may be important to get professional help. Left untreated, PTSD can worsen and continue to affect your mental health.
There are many different forms of treatment for PTSD and paranoia. Some of the most common include the following:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, aims to help you better understand how your thoughts may be leading to maladaptive feelings and actions. There are different types of CBT that may be used for PTSD, including cognitive processing therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and prolonged exposure therapy.
Prolonged exposure therapy may be used to help reduce the type of response that you have when you experience triggers. It works by gradually exposing you to stimuli that are associated with a traumatic event. This may help you manage avoidance and reactivity symptoms that may be causing hypervigilance and leading to other behaviors associated with paranoia.
There are several types of medication that could be prescribed based on your symptoms. As with many anxiety disorders, antidepressants can be helpful for PTSD. Antipsychotics and mood stabilizers may be prescribed to help with symptoms of paranoia.
Please consult with your doctor or primary care physician before taking any medication.
Working Through Trauma And Paranoia In Online Therapy
If you’re experiencing paranoia or PTSD, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed counselor who has experience helping people in similar situations. If your symptoms make it difficult to leave home, you might consider trying online therapy, which has been shown to be effective for PTSD. A study involving 126 participants receiving either online or in-person therapy for their PTSD symptoms showed that both groups saw a significant reduction in their symptoms. The study concluded that the outcomes of online therapy were comparable to those of traditional therapy.
With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can choose how you’d like to communicate with a therapist—via phone, live chat, or videoconference. You can also contact your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be especially useful if you experience paranoia or symptoms of PTSD in between sessions.
Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought help for similar challenges in the past.
“Paula is wonderful. She has been here for me since day one, and I feel like she truly is in my corner. She is patient, kind, and is excellent in dealing with chronic trauma and PTSD. She teaches me how my brain works, how I can deal with my emotions (and that it's okay to have them!), and she is helping me process the things that happened to me. She had good insights, and levels with me very well.”
“Robyn was able to give me gracious doses of support, help and advice when I was going through a rough period of anxiety, stress, relationship and family issues, as well as emotional trauma and PTSD. She’s insightful and gave me tools to better understand myself and my situation. She is easy to talk to and helped me put things into perspective in a way I didn’t think about before. Thank you, Robyn!!!”
Other Commonly Asked Questions:
Here are some other common questions about PTSD and paranoia.
Does trauma make you paranoid?
Any type of trauma, from threatening situations to domestic violence can cause both PTSD and paranoia. Perceived threats from PTSD hypervigilance can mimic paranoia in many ways. You may notice elevated blood pressure, a jump at a sudden noise, and extreme focus on your environment (hypervigilance), which can intensify feelings of panic or fear.
Even in everyday situations, people with PTSD can experience triggers that remind them of their traumatic experiences. Trauma plays a central role in the health of your nervous system. It can cause difficulty with sleep, 24/7 hypervigilance, and in extreme cases, hallucinations. The hidden dangers of trauma and PTSD are not talked about often in psychological treatments but are just as valid and important as other mental health conditions.
However, remember that many mental health conditions experience paranoia symptoms, and this article is not a diagnostic tool. People with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, and paranoid personality traits can also experience symptoms of paranoia. Getting professional help is the best way to know if you’re experiencing PTSD hypervigilance or not.
How do you treat paranoia PTSD?
The best psychological treatments for those dealing with developing PTSD from a past trauma such as car accidents or abuse are those that focus on targeting perceived threats and connecting them with traumatic memories. A trauma-informed therapist will look at all of the reasons why the client may be experiencing hypervigilance and will go through each symptom and behavior to help the client process the underlying trauma.
Professional help is essential in treating trauma, helping PTSD clients get sleep, and reducing hypervigilance. A common therapy for PTSD is called EMDR (eye-movement desensitization therapy), which works by helping both sides of the client’s brain activate for logical and emotional thinking at the same time.
Many clients react to trauma with obsessive avoidance, to try to avoid the hypervigilance they feel. This can look like avoiding sleep, dilated pupils, and unhealthy habits in your life. It’s essential to get professional help if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Peer-reviewed studies and doctors continue to stress how important sleep is for your mental health. Hypervigilance symptoms can worsen without sleep.
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