(CNN)It was like I had asked her to fork over her Social Security number and firstborn child.
"What do you need it for? What are you going to do with it?" my colleague asked me, Zoom eyes wide with fear.
"Whoa there," I wanted to say. There was no need to get concerned.
I had simply asked a coworker for a straightforward piece of information that in normal times would have evoked little more than an "OK, no problem," in response.
Of course, these aren't normal times.
It wasn't just my coworker. I noticed that so many people in my life -- friends, family, even myself since I'm being honest -- had taken a pill from the paranoid jar. Everyone seemed jumpier, more nervous, frightened, even when it came to topics that had little to do with the deadly contagion knocking on doors all around us. I talked to an immunocompromised ICU nurse, a schoolteacher, a transit worker's spouse. All agreed they were more paranoid since Covid-19 overtook daily life.
"Especially with having a kiddo with a medical history," said Stefani Seeley, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Texas. "We scrutinize every little thing we do now. Add to that the anxiety I have that our kids won't get over the trauma of the experience," she said.
Paranoia, it seemed, was just as widespread as the coronavirus, perhaps more.
Pandemic paranoia is a real thing
"The pandemic has brought on great uncertainty and stress," said Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a New York City-based forensic psychiatrist and violence expert with a long list of achievements, including having taught at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School and served as a fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health and consultant to the World Health Organization. Lee is currently president of the World Mental Health Coalition.
The John Hopkins Psychiatry Guide defines paranoia as "a response to perceived threats that is heavily influenced by anxiety and fear, existing along a continuum of normal, reality-based experience to delusional beliefs."
The symptoms of paranoia can range from the very subtle to completely overwhelming and can exist with or without other mental conditions, according to Lee and major medical associations. People don't need to have diagnosable mental health disorders to have paranoid thoughts or feelings.
"Given the stress and uncertainty and the misinformation that is being provided by news outlets and different sources, it is difficult for people to feel a sense of calm, increasing people's anxiety, which can lead to paranoid thoughts," said Adam Borland, a Cleveland-based clinical psychologist who has seen an uptick in patients who are experiencing paranoid thoughts and feelings since Covid-19 became widespread.
The trifecta of the pandemic, required social isolation and social unrest has driven many of us to more extreme behavior and worries, including paranoia. The pandemic has also brought on an uncertain economic environment, where people worry about whether they might be on the verge of losing their livelihood (and with good reason, as many have lost their jobs). The active disinformation environment about both the pandemic and other issues perpetuated by historically trusted institutions, like the US government and office of the President, has also caused people to distrust the information they are receiving and the people disseminating it.
"The exceptionally prolonged lockdown because of ineffective management and the subsequent social disruptions and economic misery — in many ways worse than the Great Depression, with tremendous inequities, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and despair — are already leading to rampant drug addiction, depression, suicides, and homicides," Lee said.
"Meanwhile, we now have a large segment of the population that has been encouraged and conditioned to avoid reality. When living in delusion, detached from reality, one naturally becomes paranoid because facts and evidence are constantly 'attacking' these false, cherished beliefs," she said.
Learning to identify the paranoia
Paranoia isn't new to me. I grew up in a house with a parent who had severe paranoia. I constantly questioned whether the information I was being fed was real or fantastical.