Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness

Christopher Lane. <i>Yale University Press. $27.50.</i>

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


“Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to,” Morrissey once sang. It’s a wonder that this classic Smiths song was never used in an ad for Paxil, the Prozac also-ran that GlaxoSmithKline successfully repurposed into a magic bullet for people with “social anxiety disorder,” a.k.a. shyness—now the third most common psychiatric disorder in America behind depression and alcoholism.

To explain how a once-ordinary affliction became a profitable disease, Christopher Lane offers a depressing yet fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of the bible of modern psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the battle over the third revision of the DSM, released in 1980, neuropsychiatrists triumphed over their Freudian colleagues, implementing a radical new way of diagnosing mental problems—not as broadly defined neuroses, but as distinct disorders with specific symptoms. This seemingly scientific shift opened the door for dozens of new conditions, including one for people who “avoid going to parties”—virgin territory for pharmaceutical firms looking for niches for their existing products.

As Lane reminds us, this wasn’t the first time the drug industry eagerly prescribed psychopharmaceuticals to soothe the anxieties of everyday life. In the 1950s, tranquilizers were marketed to anxious housewives with no mention of risks or side effects. Jump to the present, in which the fda has loosened the restrictions on direct-to-consumer marketing: An ad for Zoloft asks, “Is she just shy? Or is it Social Anxiety Disorder?” Meanwhile, concerns about withdrawal from Paxil and similar antidepressants have been swept under the mat.

The desire to cure shyness isn’t just driven by greed; it’s also fed by basic human fears. Who hasn’t worried about messing up a speech or been tongue-tied on a date? But once you begin relying on drugs to regulate anxiety, Lane notes, unexpected bumps will come up. One of the conditions being considered for inclusion in the next version of the DSM is “apathy.” One reason? Turns out that “psychotropics are a very potent cause of it.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate