Webb Therapy Uncategorized Addressing Paranoia in Counselling

Addressing Paranoia in Counselling

Retrieved from Issue 346 of Institute Inbrief 20/01/2021

Paranoia: Definition and levels

When a person believes that others are “out to get them”, trying to stalk or harm them, or paying excessive attention to them for no reason, they may be experiencing paranoia. Occurring in many mental health conditions, paranoia is most often present in psychotic disorders. It involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts, most often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy (Mental Health America, n.d.). It can be a symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia, brief psychosis, paranoid personality, psychotic depression, mania with psychotic features, delusional disorders, or substance abuse (chronic or momentary) (Barron, 2016).

Mental health experts have identified three levels of paranoia:

  1. Paranoid personality disorder (PPD): Characterised by odd or eccentric ways of thinking, PPD involves an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others when there is no reason to be suspicious. It is one of the personality disorders in the DSM-5’s Cluster A, along with schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders. Thought to be the mildest form of paranoia, a person with PPD may still be able to function in relationships, employment, and social activities. The onset is typically in early adulthood and is more common in men than in women.
     
  2. Delusional (paranoid) disorder: Found in the DSM-5 chapter, “Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders”, this is a condition in which an individual holds one major false belief or delusion; it will often be an implausible but not bizarre delusion. A delusional disorder typically occurs without any other signs of mental illness. So a person might think that others are talking behind their back if they have a persecutory delusion, or believe that they need immediate medical attention for a (non-existent) medical problem if they have a somatic delusion. This condition is slightly more common in women than men.
     
  3. Schizophrenia with bizarre delusions: People with this condition do not function well in society and need consistent treatment (Sunrise House, 2018; WebMD, 2018).This is the most severe form of paranoia, involving bizarre delusions without basis, such as that aliens are trying to abduct them, or that an unseen enemy is removing their internal organs and replacing them with others’ organs.


This article is about Levels (1) and (2), the paranoid personality disorder (PPD) and delusional disorder, which you may encounter more commonly, either in your client or the client’s partner.

Identifying paranoia

We have several options for finding out what characteristics should be called “paranoid”: we can assess how we experience the person — how we describe them and what they evoke in us — and/or we can run with DSM-5 descriptions, which outline the clinical symptoms we can observe specifically with the paranoid personality disorder and delusional disorder. Let’s do both.

Descriptions of the paranoid person

Joe Navarro, who has written extensively about mental disorders, asked those who had either lived with or been victimised by paranoid personality types to describe this personality type from their experiences. Here is the list of some of their words:

“Angry, anxious, apprehensive, combative, complainer, contrarian, critical, delusional, demanding, difficult, distrustful, disturbed, eccentric, fanatic, fearful, fixated, fussy, guarded, hard-headed, inhospitable, intense, irrational, know-it-all, menacing, mentally rigid, moralistic, obsessed, odd, offensive, opinionated, sensitive, peculiar, pedantic, quarrelsome, questioning, rigid, scary, strict, stubborn, suspicious, tense, threatening, tightly-wound, touchy, unforgiving, unhappy, vindictive, wary, watchful, withdrawn” (Navarro, 2016).

What they evoke in us:

Experiencing a relationship with someone described by such intense words as those above cannot fail to bring forth a reaction in us. Laurel Nowak (2018) outlines the common feelings evoked by paranoid individuals in those with whom they are in relationship. She talks about: “feeling weighed down, negative, stressed, isolated from the people and activities you used to enjoy, and like you’re walking on eggshells”. Some have noted that it can feel to the other person like they are not being seen — ever — for who they truly are. The exaggerated negative spin on events or in response to statements occurs in the context of relating which lacks tenderness, humour, or comfort (Navarro, 2016). While these authors are describing feelings evoked in intimate relationships with paranoid individuals, they could have been talking about how therapists feel when faced with a client with this condition. Dealing with such a person eats away at the most robust sense of happiness and self-esteem. Here are the DSM-5 symptoms.

Paranoid Personality Disorder: DSM-5 symptoms description

According to the DSM-5, there are two primary diagnostic criteria for Paranoid Personality Disorder, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features. Four of these must be present to warrant a diagnosis of PPD:

Criterion A is: Global mistrust and suspicion of others’ motives which commences in adulthood. The seven sub-features of Criterion A are:

  1. Belief others are using, lying to, or harming them, without apparent evidence thereof
  2. Doubts about the loyalty and trustworthiness of friends and associates
  3. Inability to confide in others due to the belief that their confidence will be betrayed
  4. Interpretation of ambiguous or benign remarks as hurtful or threatening
  5. Holding grudges (being unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights)
  6. In the absence of objective evidence, belief that their reputation or character are being assailed by others; retaliation in some manner
  7. Being jealous and suspicious without cause that intimate partners are being unfaithful.


Criterion B is that the above symptoms will not be during a psychotic episode in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder with psychotic features (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Delusional Disorder: DSM-5 definition and types

According to the DSM-5, this condition is characterised by at least one month of delusions but no other psychotic symptoms. Delusions are false beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite the evidence to the contrary; these beliefs are not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture. In delusional disorder (a moderate level of paranoia), a person experiences non-schizophrenic (i.e., not bizarre) delusions, such as that they are that they are being spied on. Because only thoughts are affected, a person with a delusional disorder can act normal and function in everyday life, although they may display paranoia or other symptoms related to their delusion. The five types of delusions people with this disorder have are:

  1. Erotomanic, where there is a belief that a person with higher social or financial standing (such as the president or a movie star) is in love with them; it can lead to stalking and obsession.
     
  2. Grandiose, involving the false belief that the person has a special power or ability not shared by anyone else (such as that they are extremely lucky and will always win at the casino).
     
  3. Jealous: a mistaken belief that a current or former loved one is unfaithful or even harmful. Paranoia about the loved one’s words or actions can be a symptom of these delusions.
     
  4. Persecutory, in which the common sense of the paranoia is that someone is out to get the individual, because the person believes they are being threatened, mistreated, or that they will be harmed in the future.
     
  5. Somatic: a delusion in which the individual believes that they have an illness, disability or physical defect (Sunrise House, 2018; Mental Health America, n.d.; Bourgeois, 2017).


Treating and coping with paranoia

For the therapist

First, we must note the common advice: a person suffering from either PPD or a delusional disorder needs to seek professional help, although most such individuals do not believe that they are paranoid; rather, they think they are perceptive, noticing things that no one else sees. In this sense, it can be difficult to get such a person to therapy, as the condition tends to be ego syntonic. If such an individual turns up in your therapy rooms, however, note that a referral to a medical doctor is in order to determine if medication is needed.

Medication generally is not a major focus of treatment for PPD; therapy is. However, medications, such as anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or anti-psychotic drugs, might be prescribed if the person’s symptoms are extreme, or if he or she also suffers from an associated psychological problem, such as anxiety or depression (WebMD, 2018).

With delusional disorders, the diagnosed individual begins a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The anti-psychotic medication helps the individual improve enough to be able to understand reality and the need for therapeutic help. In milder cases, the individual may receive anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants, which allows them to undergo therapy, where they learn coping skills, how to recognise delusions as false, and how to manage stress or difficult feelings. Hospitalisation may sometimes be indicated to stop the person from harming themselves or others during violent delusions (Sunrise House, 2018).

As the condition affects the client’s thought patterns and beliefs, it can be worked with effectively using cognitive behavioural therapy, which transforms the unrealistic, maladaptive thoughts by replacing them with more helpful, realistic adaptive thoughts. In addition, some therapists have observed that psychodynamic work, such as object relations, can help paranoid clients look into reasons for becoming mistrustful and suspicious which arise from early childhood relationships (Everyday Health, n.d.).

You might be asking, “Wait a minute; chief symptoms are a tendency to be suspicious and an inability to trust. How, then, can a therapist make any reasonable headway with such a client, given that trust is the basis for any solid therapeutic alliance?” If you twigged to this issue, congratulations; you have nailed the problem: how to keep the paranoid client in therapy long enough for enough trust to be built so that real progress can be made. Building trust is where the challenge is, no matter what modality is being used with the client.

To help a client in relationship with a person living with paranoia

You are likely to see the partner of a person acting paranoid. Once it is established that some form of paranoia is indeed the diagnosis, some clear guidelines exist for helping the partner. Some of the following tips also hold true for therapists working with this client population.

Setting boundaries. The paranoid person needs compassion and understanding, true, but that does not equate to acceptance of poor treatment on the grounds that the person has a disorder and is frustrated. Clear lines of what is acceptable and what is not must be drawn; those expectations for decent treatment must be communicated clearly, including around the issue of refusing to collude with delusional thinking (compromising one’s own needs) because of the person’s paranoia or fear.

Practicing self-care. For therapists and partners alike, this one is paramount! Dealing with this disorder is exhausting and sometimes heart-breaking. Those in close relationships (whether intimate or therapeutic) with paranoid individuals must have regular, solid habits of self-care. All the usual practices go into this category: relaxation/meditation, exercise, decent diet, support systems activated, and perhaps journalling or creative work to vent frustrations. Particularly for partners of those with PPD or a delusional disorder, maintaining a healthy social life — not allowing oneself to become isolated — is important.

Don’t abandon own stance, but empathise with their fear. If either the partner of the paranoid person or you, as therapist, hear an accusation that seems really “off” — totally unfounded — you can employ the tactic of empathising with the feeling, but not necessarily agreeing with the facts (though outright disagreeing doesn’t work, either). Carrie Baron, M.D., and Director of the Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Texas, explains that consoling the person and refuting what they have said will not likely alter any paranoid convictions or delusions. What works better is “observation, reflection, curiosity and openness without judgment”, which lead to better understanding (Barron, 2016). Thus, the partner could say to the paranoid person, “I can imagine you’re worried if you think that the inheritance you counted on for your retirement might be taken away through your dad marrying. Have you observed any behaviour that made you question her motives?” (curiosity). However they do it, partners of people with any form of paranoia must look beneath the surface before getting swept up in the partner’s claims (Barron, 2016).

Recognise that the paranoid person can still contribute to life. Because of the fact that mild or moderate forms of paranoia are circumscribed, showing up only in particular thoughts and delusions, only those involved or accused may be aware of the psychopathology of the condition. The person can thus contribute to family life, work, and aspects of social life in positive ways, which you as therapist can help highlight for the partner.

Having either a client or a client’s partner who is paranoid is not easy, but the worst heartbreak and chaos can be avoided if the person can engage treatment, including medication when necessary.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.(5th Edition). Washington, DC.: APA.
  2. Barron, C. (2016). 7 Tips for coping with a paranoid partner. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  3. Bourgeois, J. (2017). Delusional disorder. Medscape. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  4. Everyday Health. (n.d.) Coping with paranoia in a loved one. Everyday Health. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  5. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Paranoia and delusional disorders. Mental Health America. Retrieved on 6 December, 2018, from: Website.
  6. Navarrro, J. (2016). The paranoid partner: Identifying the paranoid personality in relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  7. Nowak, L. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder and relationships: Moving past fear, together. Bridges to Recovery. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  8. Sunrise House. (2018). Is there a difference between paranoia and delusional disorders? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  9. WebMD. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder. WebMD LLC. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.

Related Post

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I was recently browsing some of the units I completed for my counselling diploma – for revision. The human memory has not evolved to store, organise, categorise and recall all the large amounts of information we collect every day, nor is our memory always accurate. It’s important for counsellors and therapists to keep up to date with new approaches to counselling, and it doesn’t hurt to read over learned materials from college days. I thought I’d provide some learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for readers.

Just to acknowledge the work of others, most of what is written below, I have retrieved and paraphrased from ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY Published by: Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors Pty Ltd.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, known as ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’), is an approach to counselling that was originally developed in the early 1980s by Steven C. Hayes, and became popular in the early 2000’s through Hayes’ collaboration with Kelly G. Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl as well as through the work of Russ Harris. You can look them up on Youtube or Google if you’re interested in what they might have to say about ACT.

“Unlike more traditional cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) approaches, ACT does not
seek to change the form or frequency of people’s unwanted thoughts and emotions. Rather,
the principal goal of ACT is to cultivate psychological flexibility, which refers to the ability to
contact the present moment, and based on what the situation affords, to change or persist
with behaviour in accordance with one’s personal values. To put it another way, ACT
focuses on helping people to live more rewarding lives even in the presence of undesirable
thoughts, emotions, and sensations.”

(Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011, p. vii)

ACT interventions tend to focus around two main processes:

  • Developing acceptance of unwanted private experiences that are outside of personal
    control.
  • Commitment and action toward living a valued life (Harris, 2009)

In a nutshell, ACT gets its name from its core ideas of accepting what is outside of your personal control and committing to action that improves and enriches your life.

Cognitive Defusion is the process of learning to detach ourselves from our thought processes and simply observe them for what they are – “transient private events – an ever-changing stream of words, sounds and pictures” (Harris, 2006, p. 6). I think this component of ACT is incredibly beneficial if we practice it daily. I like to say, just like the function of the heart is to pump oxygenated blood around the body, one of the brain’s functions is to have thoughts. We can observe thoughts without taking them to mean more than what they are. Some thoughts are automatic, some are subconscious, and some are unconscious or preconscious beliefs that we consider to be true and factual and “rules” about how the world operates and how we have to operate in it. If someone is defused from their thought processes, these processes do not have control on the person; instead the person is able to simply observe them without getting caught up in them or feel the need to change/control them.

Acceptance is the process of opening oneself up and “making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention” (Harris, 2006, p. 7). Practicing acceptance is important because it encourages the individual to develop an ability and willingness to feel uncomfortable without being overwhelmed by it (Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011). It’s important to acknowledge that to accept something doesn’t mean we like it or have a passive attitude. It is to accept something exactly as it is and then we choose what to do with it. Think of the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Contact with the present moment is the concept of being “psychologically present” and bringing full attention to the “here-and-now” experience (Harris, 2009). I’d also argue that to psychologically present, we must also be aware of our physical body and the sensations within it and outside of it. Because we have the ability to think about the past and about the future, sometimes it can be difficult to stay in the present (Batten, 2011; Harris, 2009). Having contact with the present moment is essential because that it where we find out anchor and power. We have the ability to pay attention in a flexible manner to the present moment and connect with that experience rather than ruminate on past events or future possibilities (Lloyd & Bond, 2015). Some of you might say “What if I can’t stand the present moment?”. True. If you have extreme emotional experiences or have a history of trauma, it may be functional for you to use distraction or talking to someone when the present moment is “too much to take”. What we want to work towards is using healthy coping strategies in the present moment mindfully, instead of behaviours that no longer serve us.

Values, and identifying them, (i.e., what is important to the individual) is a central element of ACT because it assists clients to move in the direction of living and creating a meaningful life. One of the central goals of ACT is to help clients to connect with the things they value most and to travel in “valued directions” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014).

Committed action is the process of taking steps towards one’s values even in the presence of unpleasant thoughts and feelings (Harris, 2009). Behavioural interventions, such as goal setting, exposure, behavioural activation, and skills training, are generally used to create committed action. The ACT model acknowledges that learning is not enough, one must also take action to create change.

Self-as-context, or what I prefer to call “the observing self” or simply just our self-awareness, creates a distinction between the ‘thinking self’ and the ‘observing self’ (Harris, 2009). The thinking self refers to the self that generates thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies, and plans, whereas the observing self is the self that is aware of what we think, feel, sense, or do (Harris, 2009). “From this perspective, you are not your thoughts and feelings; rather, you are the context or arena in which they unfold” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014). Being aware of the observing self allows an individual to have a greater ability to be mindful and in the present moment, as they can separate themselves from the thoughts, beliefs, and memories they have.

Be Good To Yourself: The ACT Matrix | Therapy worksheets, Therapy quotes,  Psychology quotes

Emotions: Function and MotivationEmotions: Function and Motivation

Joy or happiness can motivate us to join in, take part, flourish, share, be a part of, repeat these activities.

Fear can motivate us to get away, hide, flee, run, keep ourselves or others safe. It protects us.

Sadness can motivate us to withdraw, ruminate, cry, heal, express hurt, seek comfort and bond with others.

Anger can motivate us to attack, defend or stand up for ourselves, identify boundary violation, identify there is a threat to our self or our loved ones or something we value.

Guilt can motivate us to repair what we have done and informs us that we have violated our morals or values.

Shame can motivate us to hide away, to keep things secret, to remember our fallibility and humility, to keep us “right sized”.

Disgust can motivate us to withdraw, keep a distance, get clean or clean our environment to ensure we stay healthy.

Compassion, empathy, or sympathy can motivate us to offer comfort, be with others, relate to one another and form strong bonds.

Confusion (Cognitive with physical sensations) can motivate us to get curious, learn, discover, grow.

Affection (behavioural with physical sensations) can motivate us to give love, get close to specific people who were feel safe with, and want to spend more time with.

Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destructionUnderstanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

What is meant by self-harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without the intention to end your life. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is usually a response to distress, whether it be from mental illness, trauma, or psychological pain. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from emotional pain (extract from Self harm (lifeline.org.au)).

People who engage in self-harm will profess that they have no intention of dying and that their self-harming behaviour is a coping strategy, however, there are incidents of accidental suicide. The act of self-harm can develop into an obsessive-compulsion experience which can be very difficult to stop, like addiction, without outside intervention. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and possible suicidal thinking. Like building a tolerance to a drug, when self-injury does not relieve the tension or help control negative thoughts and feelings, the person may injure themselves more severely or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and may consider suicide.

The following extract by Tracy Alderman Ph.D explains the physiological response to physical pain:

“Physiologically, endorphins are released when we are injured or stressed. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act similarly to morphine and reduce the amount of pain we experience when we are hurt. Joggers often report experiencing a “runners high” when reaching a physically stressful period. This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine. When people self-injure, the same process takes place. Endorphins are released which limit or block the amount of physical pain that’s experienced. Sometimes people who intentionally hurt themselves will even say that they felt a “rush” or “high” from the act. Given the role of endorphins, this makes perfect sense” (Oct 22, 2009).

Please click on the link for the full article Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II | Psychology Today Australia

The first step is to distinguish between self-harming and suicidal behaviour by paying attention to a person’s underlying motivation. When working with self-harming behaviour it is important to remember that this behaviour serves a purpose. In collaboration with the client, try to identify what problem self-harm solves for the client. For example, from the client’s perspective:

  • To make me feel real (counteracts dissociation)
  • To punish me (temporarily lessens guilt or shame)
  • To stop me from feeling (when strong feelings are too dangerous)
  • To mark the body (to show externally the internal scars)
  • To let something bad out (symbolic way to try to get rid of shame, pain, etc.)
  • To remember
  • To keep from hurting someone else (to control my behaviour and my anger)
  • To communicate (to let someone know how bad the pain is)
  • To express anger indirectly (to punish someone without getting them angry at me)
  • To reclaim control of the body (this time I’m in charge)
  • To feel better

Tips for helping yourself in the moment
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful to start relieving some distress:

  • Intense exercise for 30 seconds, 30 second break, repeat, up to 15 minutes – Exercising intensely will help your body mitigate unpleasant energy that can sometimes be stored from strong emotions. Transfer this energy by running, walking at a fast pace, doing jumping jacks, etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which will help combat any negative emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Delay — put off self-harming behaviours until you have spoken to someone.
  • Distract — do some exercise, go for a walk, play a game, do something kind for yourself, play loud music or use positive coping strategies.
  • Deep breathing — or other relaxation methods.
  • Cool your body temperature – Cooler temperatures decrease your heart rate (which is usually faster when we are emotionally overwhelmed). You can either splash your face with cold water, take a cold (but not too cold) shower, or if the weather outside is chilly you can go outside for a walk. Another idea is to take an ice cube and hold it in your hand or rub your face with it.
  • Listen to loud music
  • Call someone you trust or one of the services available like LifeLine 13 11 14, MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 and BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636 [see below].
  • You could write an email to yourself to express your emotions, or journal your feelings, if that’s something that might be effective for you.
  • Watch humorous Youtube clips

New, healthier coping strategies may not be as effective as the one you’re trying to replace so it may take practice. Bring lots of compassion to yourself, okay.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It’s important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Mental health services infographic