Mental health & conspiracy theories – is there a connection?

Mental health and conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are on the rise and so too is the number of people who get behind them. Among other things, this is believed to be linked to the increasing use of social media – but is there also a mental health connection?

A conspiracy theory can be generally defined as a belief that a secret but influential organization is responsible for a particular phenomenon or event. Conspiracy theories come in many forms, but the majority are about social or political events.

Some people seem to get consumed by particular conspiracy theories. There also seems to be an increasing number of people who subscribe to several conspiracy theories, even sometimes all conspiracy theories – and then any new ones that arise as well.

This can be to such an extent that now mental health experts are talking about some people having a conspiracy theory addiction. So what could be behind this?

A behavioral addiction

Behavioral addiction

Conspiracy theory addiction would fall under what is known as a behavioral addiction. This is a type of addiction that means engaging in non-substance-related behaviors that bring some reward. Behavioral addictions include workaholism, gaming, shopping, gambling, and using social media.

As with substance addiction, the behavioral addict has little regard for the consequences of their behavior, whether those are physical, social, financial, or emotional. Any addiction – including alcohol or drugs and behavioral addictions – can be defined as doing something that is detrimental to those and/or those around you that the person doing it cannot stop and stay stopped from doing.

Many addictions create some sort of a high, that can be seen as a “reward”. But they are also often all-consuming distractions – and purposely so, although this is most likely not consciously decided. This is because they then take us away from thinking about, remembering, and feeling something that is too overwhelmingly painful.

Anything that has the capacity to change the way we feel can be something that we become addicted to – if we don’t like the way we feel. Not liking the way someone feels often stems from childhood, perhaps from trauma, toxic shame, or some form of a “failure of love”.

Not about right or wrong

Of course, anything that’s presently a theory can be proven right and so become a fact. We live in a modern world where what once were just theories are now known to be true – such as that germs exist and that a man-made machine can fly.

So this is not about proving who is right or wrong: it is about showing why some people might be more inclined to have open ears to conspiracy theories. In doing so it perhaps also reveals why some people will never even entertain the idea of listening to what is behind a conspiracy theory.

There could be something in terms of mental health and character traits that drives people who believe in several or all conspiracy theories. For instance, these traits have been identified by mental health experts that are common in people who believe many conspiracy theories.

These are:

  • The need to be in control.
  • The need to belong to a group.
  • The need to feel unique, special, clever or even superior.
  • The need for understanding.

Aspects of these are common in the human condition in general – but for those who are passionate about many conspiracy theories, they can be seen to be bigger or more exaggerated than in most people.

Meeting unmet needs?

Need to be in control

People who feel psychologically and/or socially and politically out of control are probably more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Having one or more conspiracy theories to focus on in some way and campaign about gives them a sense of being in control.

Raising awareness of, researching, and fighting for a particular conspiracy theory can also act as a distraction from internal pain. If, for instance, someone has childhood trauma that seems too painful to face, spending every spare minute on a conspiracy theory is a distraction away from that pain and the negative feelings it gives.

It then becomes a coping mechanism, found subconsciously. When people feel internal chaos, disorder inside, they will go to any lengths in an attempt to create order externally. 

This is a factor behind many addictions and personality disorders. For example, someone thinking they are in control of when they can drink again or take drugs another time feels a sense of order with those choices.

Need to belong

If our needs were unmet when we were growing up – needs that included knowing we are loved and approved of as we are – people develop all sorts of ways to try to deal with that. An addiction to conspiracy theories could be one of those ways. 

Humans have a tribal mentality where we need to feel part of a group. Any addiction can be a way of feeling some belonging, having a sense of family with other people who are also using a similar coping mechanism to deal with the painful fact that their family of origin was not there for them. 

This makes us feel connected and safer. As with a family, it is one reason why people can get so passionate about one or more conspiracy theories: it is not just the conspiracy theory for which they are fighting so much, it is also to protect the sense of belonging that they have found and the positive feelings of love and security that gives them.

Need to feel special

This is connected to seeking external love and approval again. Having knowledge about something that most people don’t have gives a sense of feeling special and unique – or even superior. For anyone who feels empty to some extent, perhaps inferior and not good enough inside, this is one thing they can seek as a coping mechanism. 

Thinking that you are in the know, even that you are smart enough to know or have been chosen in some way, gives people a sense of being someone. Or if someone is feeling extremely empty it gives a sense of just being.

It can be why some conspiracy theorists fight so fanatically – because their sense of being is under threat if someone doesn’t believe what they are saying or offers them some facts that seem to disprove what they are saying regarding the conspiracy theory.

Need for consistent understanding

With internal disorder, that arises from such as trauma, toxic shame, and a failure of love in childhood, there is a yearning to understand things, including oneself. By spending time trying to understand things in a consistent way it creates a sense of temporary order that is like pain relief from the internal chaos.

As well, conspiracy theories can often give an explanation for something that seems confusing, and for this reason that is frightening too. So such as spending time researching on the internet not only acts as a distraction from emotional pain, it can give a sense of truly understanding what is going on.

Perhaps as our world gets busier, more populated and we get bombarded with increasingly more information every day, the growth in the number of conspiracy theories was something that was bound to happen. Also, the worldwide pandemic creating uncertainty is undoubtedly a factor.

COVID-19 and its consequences have heightened anxiety levels. Any addiction can be a way of finding relief from high anxiety.

But if someone is addicted to conspiracy theories it can have the same negative consequences as any addiction. The person may find over time that it stops working and so seek more and more.

It can also leave them feeling increasingly isolated. One reason for this is that as addiction takes hold of someone, other people often tend to back away for self-protection.

Most addicts suffer from a growing feeling of disconnection from other people. As someone gets deeper into any particular conspiracy theory they might find their sense of being different from others grows and with that, a sense of isolation can increase.

Our professional team of experts has great experience in treating people with all emotional and mental health issues. Call us today to hear how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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