Shadow Syndromes: Recognizing and Coping with the Hidden Psychological Disorders That Can Influence Your Behavior and Silently Determine the Course of Your Life


Millions of people who attribute their daily life problems to bad parents or low self-esteem or lack of will power are in fact struggling with a shadow syndrome. Chronic sadness, obsessiveness, outbursts of anger, the inability to finish tasks, disabling discomfort in social situations - these and other problems are all mild forms of serious mental disorders that can affect the very course of our lives. They are shadow syndromes. Drs. John J. Ratey and Catherine Johnson explode the idea that these problems are ...
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Millions of people who attribute their daily life problems to bad parents or low self-esteem or lack of will power are in fact struggling with a shadow syndrome. Chronic sadness, obsessiveness, outbursts of anger, the inability to finish tasks, disabling discomfort in social situations - these and other problems are all mild forms of serious mental disorders that can affect the very course of our lives. They are shadow syndromes. Drs. John J. Ratey and Catherine Johnson explode the idea that these problems are brought on by aberrations in upbringing or relationships, and that they are prolonged by a willful refusal to change. They make it clear that, on the contrary, these patterns of behavior have their origins in the inherent structure and chemistry of the individual brain, that they are distinctly identifiable, and that for all of us, understanding our own unique biological makeup is the key to freeing ourselves from biology's bonds. Knowing who we are biologically as well as psychologically is the key to living a free and full life. Ratey and Johnson describe methods for tempering shadow syndromes and their traces.

"...argues that those who attribute their problems to a bad upraising, negative relationships, or lack of will power are actually suffering from a milder form of a debilitating mental illness."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The behaviors of the husband who can't control his rages or the supermom who tries to excel on all fronts may have a biological basis in the brain, according to Harvard psychiatrist Ratey and journalist Johnson (Lucky in Love). In separate chapters, they examine mild forms (which they label "shadow syndromes") of hypermania, intermittent rage disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As they explore the biological basis of each, they present real-life stories of individuals experiencing less-than-florid manifestations of serious mental disorders. Everyone will recognize someone in this cast, and Seinfeld fans will be amused by the examples of absurd obsessions taken from that show. Although most of their subjects find relief through a blend of psychotherapy and medication (that husband's tantrums are controlled with desipramine; Prozac helps the supermom lighten up), the authors also recommend simpler remedies, such as eating well and exercising, that improve the functioning of the brain. Noting that "trying to achieve `mental fitness' is not like trying to achieve physical fitness," the authors acknowledge that much remains to be learned about the workings of the brain, an organ they liken to the weather, in which small changes can have large, unpredictable effects. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679439684
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/4/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 389
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

John J. Ratey, M.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Executive Director of Research at Medfield State Hospital in Medfield, MA. He is the co-author of Driven to Distraction and Answers to Distraction. He lives in Wellesley, MA.

Catherine Johnson, Ph.D., is a contributing editor at New Woman magazine, and the author of When to Say Goodbye to Your Therapist and Lucky In Love. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

Neuropsychiatry is now discovering that a great deal of what we thought was due to (poor) upbringing in fact is heavily influenced by the genetics, structure, and neurochemistry of the brain. Every one of the troublesome personalities made famous by our popular press likely has its roots in an unsuspected brain difference: the Peter Pan syndrome, the Cinderella complex, the women who love too much, the men who can't love, the codependent--the list goes on. All of these people are doubtless going to turn out to have brain differences that contribute to their Peter Pan-ness or their Cinderella-ness or their codependentness. Of course, differences in the brain cut both ways: as studies of artists with manic-depressive illness have shown, a brain difference that handicaps us in one realm may also endow us with greater capacities in another. Our purpose in writing this book is not to pathologize every nook and cranny of everyday life, but to offer help for those areas in which our brain differences do hurt more than help. Until now there has been no biologically based help for the difficult personalities among us because no one has suspected that their problems might have biological facets.

That is the purpose of this book: to look again at the biology of everyday life one hundred years later--this time from the vantage point of twentieth-century neuropsychiatry. Our question in this book is: when we--or someone we love--are behaving at our worst, or simply behaving irrationally, what role does biology play? And: how do genuine problems in life, problems like a difficult childhood or a parent who drinks, interact with our biology to create the charactertraits and flaws that are not just written into our characters but into our neurons as well?

In order to take a second look at normal "craziness," we can learn from the kinds of craziness that are not so normal. When we speak of schizophrenia or severe manic-depression, there is no question in anyone's mind that the person is ill. And it is easy enough for us to believe that these illnesses are biological in origin (though it was not so long ago that these illnesses, too, were blamed upon bad parents).

The confusion begins when one sees patients who do not fit the classic categories, but who nevertheless have very real difficulties in life. Are these difficulties due entirely to upbringing and environment, or do they, too, have some basis in the brain's biology? Modern psychiatry has been struggling to make sense of these people for fifty years. Doctors diagnose their patients according to the syndromes described in DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition. A syndrome is a set of behaviors that consistently appear together: a set of behaviors the patient, the doctor, or the patient's friends and family can observe and describe. A syndrome is not, at this point, a physical marker like the positive result on a test for HIV antibodies that establishes a diagnosis of HIV-positive. When a psychiatrist diagnoses the syndrome of panic disorder, for example, he cannot--yet--perform an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) that tells him whether the patient does or does not qualify for the diagnosis (although we may be closest to such a test for this particular disorder). Instead, he looks for symptoms: a pounding chest, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, sweating or coldness and changes in temperature regulation, the fear that one is having a heart attack, sometimes a feeling that the person is going to pass out, sometimes a feeling that he or she is going to go crazy. This is the set of symptoms that make up the syndrome.

The problem is, every patient is different--including every patient with the same diagnosis. As a result, the number of syndromes recognized by practicing psychiatrists has leapt in the forty years since the first edition of the DSM appeared in 1952. That volume described 60 categories of abnormal behavior. DSM-II, published in 1968, more than doubled this number to 145 syndromes, and DSM-III raised the total to 230. The DSM-IV, which appeared in 1994, lists 382 distinct diagnoses, plus an additional 28 floating, or unassigned, diagnoses--which brings us today to a total of 410 different possible diagnostic labels. What the ever-increasing number of possible diagnoses means is that a person who comes into a psychiatrist's office complaining of being depressed, for example, could be categorized as belonging to one of four major categories--bipolar disorder, major depression, "other specific affective disorders," or "atypical affective disorder"--with several subcategories included within each of these main categories. (A patient diagnosed as bipolar could then be further characterized as "mixed," "manic," or "depressed," for instance.) It is a complex business.

As time goes by, we find that the art of diagnosis grows ever more fragmented; seemingly sound diagnostic categories keep breaking down. Emotional problems do not fit the "concrete blocks" of the DSM-I, -II, -III, or -IV; real people come into the office with bits of this and pieces of that. A patient might show signs of panic disorder, signs of major depressive disorder, and signs of a narcissistic personality disorder all in the same package. He or she may have parts of a whole array of syndromes, and yet not suffer from all of the symptoms of any one syndrome. Or he may fit every aspect of a syndrome down to the smallest detail and yet be so mildly affected compared to other people suffering from that problem that even a good therapist might miss the diagnosis. Finally, a patient may exhibit only one or two symptoms from a particular syndrome, a condition long known as a forme fruste in conventional medicine. A patient with a forme fruste of Graves disease, for instance, might have the bulging eyes without the sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, irritability, and weight loss that accompany a full-blown case of the illness. A forme fruste is an incomplete expression of an illness, though the term is little used today. We have chosen to replace it here with the phrase shadow syndrome because the meanings of the word shadow, both literal and metaphorical, capture the nature of a mild mental disorder. In the literal sense, a shadow is an indistinct form of something all too vivid and real, just as a shadow syndrome is an indistinct and seldom obvious form of a severe disorder. And metaphorical shadows cast a pall across a day that might otherwise be sunny and clear. This is what shadow syndromes do in the realms of work and love: they cast a shadow.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Biology of Everyday Life 3
Author's Prologue: Catherine's Story 24
Author's Prologue: John's Story 33
Ch. 1 The Noisy Brain 44
Ch. 2 The Biology of Being "Difficult": Masked Depression 66
Ch. 3 The Pathology of Elation: The Hypomanic Personality 104
Ch. 4 Adults Who Tantrum: Intermittent Rage Disorder 144
Ch. 5 Prisoners of the Present: Mild Attention Deficit Disorder 175
Ch. 6 Autistic Echoes 214
Ch. 7 The Hidden Epidemic: Attention "Surplus" Disorders: Shadow Forms of OCD, Addiction, and Anxiety 279
Ch. 8 Care and Feeding of the Brain 340
Acknowledgments 370
Index 373
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