That’s Men: Paranoid? Welcome to the new reality


Back in the day I was at the annual general meeting of a small left-wing organisation when angry voices were heard at the door. The angry voices belonged to two members who had drifted away from their post at the entrance and had returned to find a couple of gentlemen from the Special Branch copying the attendance list into their notebooks.

When challenged, the men from the branch took themselves off with their notebooks and our names, and after a certain amount of head-shaking we all settled down again. Behind our anger was a sort of satisfaction. To have the Special Branch watching us could be taken as meaning we were important whereas, in cold reality, we weren’t important at all.

At the time it was sometimes said, in cynical moments, that the one thing worse than being under surveillance was not to be under surveillance. For that reason, some of those who complained excessively about being followed by the Special Branch but who were doing nothing that could be of much interest to them were regarded by others as indulging in a self-serving paranoia.

I thought of this when reading that
fairly high levels of paranoia have been found in Western populations. Some research suggests that about one-third of people have felt paranoid at some stage.

This means that paranoia, the unfounded conviction that someone has malevolent intentions towards you, is not just something that affects people who have psychiatric problems.

Before I continue I want to
acknowledge that the degree of
paranoia that requires psychiatric treatment can bring huge suffering to the people concerned. Full-blown paranoia can be terrifying because of the certainty of the belief that someone aims to harm you.

The general kind is a milder affair and
it must be getting harder and harder to distinguish mild paranoia from reality.

It’s not all that long since anyone going around saying the US government was reading their mail and listening to their phone calls would be regarded as paranoid. Thanks to Edward Snowden,
we now regard such activities as commonplace.

And then there are the big corporations that are spying on you in your home.
That would have been a sure-fire sign
that you were overdue a trip to your doctor. Today you have tracking cookies and adware on your computer that are, indeed, spying on you for big

So the line between paranoid ideas and reality is blurring all the time.

To make matters worse, we may actually have evolved to be somewhat paranoid. Two psychologists, Lyn Ellett at the Royal Holloway University of London and Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton, believe paranoia may have become established in human beings to keep us safe.

“In evolutionary terms, a false positive [fearing harmless people] is potentially less costly than a false negative [failing to fear others who are truly hostile and therefore pose a genuine threat],” they write in The Psychologist.

As far as our survival systems go, “better safe than sorry” is the mantra. In other words, we evolved to see threats even when they don’t exist because that sort of vigilance keeps us alive.

With the levels of state and corporate surveillance in today’s world, it is hardly surprising that researchers have
described paranoia as the 21st-century fear.

And that’s a great pity because fear, after all, is fear. It may keep us alive but it reduces our quality of life as far as our psychological wellbeing goes. And even if we don’t define ourselves as being in any way paranoid, the knowledge that we are under surveillance is stressful in itself. Anxiety, tiredness and stress all increase when people know they are under surveillance.

It’s all a far cry from our two Special Branch men in the hotel with their Biros and notebooks. But it matters all the same to our mental health, and perhaps what’s most serious is that there may be nothing at all we can do about it. Welcome to the future.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and is the author of Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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