Yesterday’s violent outburst at the Oscars by actor Will Smith has fuelled, yet again, a vitriolic barrage of tweets from both camp Smith and camp Rock. In case you’ve not heard, comedian and Oscars presenter Chris Rock made a cheap, unkind joke about Will Smith’s wife’s alopecia. To which Smith, after an initial, hard-to-explain chuckle, stood up, marched onto the stage and hit Rock in the face, followed by a couple of aggressive verbal admonishments. Not much later, Will Smith was announced as an Oscar winner. In his acceptance speech, he broke down in tears, apologised for his outburst and went on to describe how important his role as father and protector of his family is.
While I have no interest in joining the stone-throwing, shaming fiesta, I am absolutely fascinated by the reasons why a famous, successful man such as Smith would allow himself to literally lose it in front of millions, and potentially jeopardise his career and public image.
What I’m about to say in no way excuses Smith’s behaviour. Physical violence of any kind is simply unacceptable in this scenario. I would just like to offer a different perspective that may be helpful to you, someone you know, or someone you lead.
Male Irritable Syndrome and the Resurgence of the Angry / Out of Control Leader
In recent years, we have seen plenty of examples of male public figures ‘losing it’ in front of large audiences. Think Trump, Putin, Nigel Farage and Kanye West to name just a few chest-puffing, hatred-spitting examples. Closer to home circles, we’ve all witnessed the recent shift from polite forums to savage arenas on platforms such as LinkedIn. It seems to me, there are a lot of angry people out there, and I can’t help but notice that many are middle-aged to older men.
What’s going on? Are we hitting a new pandemic of grumpy older men? And what’s biology got to do with this?
Well, quite a lot actually.
Will Smith is 52, just in the window of when hormonal shifts really start to make themselves felt in men. I won’t be speaking about women today – just bear in mind that biological shifts also occur in middle-aged women but of a different kind, leading to different behavioural changes.
Several of these biological changes have been identified in the scientific literature as a phenomenon called Irritable Male Syndrome – which has been found to occur in all adult mammal males (human and animal) when there is a drop in testosterone. As you will read below, there are other factors also involved.
The term Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) was coined by Dr Gerald Lincoln, a Scottish researcher who found that one of the most prevalent, yet unrecognised, symptoms of mid-life hormonal changes in men was irritability. His research also found that contrary to popular belief, low testosterone not high, was the cause of most male irritability.
The main features of IMS are:
Very often, the above signs are actually male aspects of depression and go unrecognised. The popular, satirical caricaturing of the grumpy old man stereotype that is so often laughed at in the media has done nothing to raise awareness of this significant pattern of depression in men.
The problem is, in men who are also genetically more prone to aggression, this creates a highly volatile, ready-to-explode combination of rage and violence. I’m not saying that Will Smith is a potential murderer in the making – merely that his outburst is a sign of biological imbalance that in some genetically vulnerable men can lead to catastrophic consequences.
There are many causes at the root of IMS – many biological and genetic:
1. Hormonal changes that occur in middle age:
For many men, testosterone levels start to lower in their thirties. Approximately 60% of middle-aged male leaders I have tested through the years have the testosterone levels of men in their 70s. Lower levels of testosterone in men are linked to depression, a loss of sense of self, decreased libido, decreased sexual performance, and a higher risk of suicidal ideation.
2. Body composition changes:
In men, adequate levels of testosterone are necessary to maintain a healthy fat distribution throughout their bodies. However, as men age, they tend to move less, drink more and eat more fat and sugar. The male body tends to store more visceral fat (deep abdominal fat) as triglycerides (fat particles that are heavily influenced by alcohol and diet) levels increase.
Research has shown that the presence of visceral fat can interfere with testosterone production, further accelerating the storage of fat in the belly. This excess fat not only reduces the production of testosterone but also ramps up the rise of the female hormone estrogen in men. Will Smith has recently posted photos of himself describing how out of shape he feels. His waistline has expanded considerably in recent years. This shows a likely decrease in his testosterone levels and an increase in estrogen – not a healthy combination for mental wellbeing in men.
Recent research looking at the metabolism of dopamine and serotonin has found that while testosterone speeds up the genes responsible for their breakdown, making younger men more prone to seek risky behaviours to lift these neurochemicals, estrogen does the opposite. Estrogen slows down the breakdown of dopamine and serotonin, making middle-aged and older, overweight men more prone to anger and anxiety.
4. Early life trauma:
Childhood trauma such as the one that Will Smith experienced when he repeatedly witnessed his father abusing his mother, has been shown to turn on epigenetic signals in our DNA. This leads to a heightened expression of the genes involved in aggression and depression.
High levels of stress (who isn’t experiencing this these days?) such as the relationship turmoil Will Smith has been experiencing with his wife, also causes a drop in testosterone levels in men. In turn, low testosterone makes a man more vulnerable to the effects of stress on mental health.
Public belief assumes that women are hormonal, but men are driven more by logic. The truth is that men are as hormonally driven as women. Many men dismiss the changes they experience in their body shape, thought patterns and emotional regulation as normal, at best. Or, at worst, they are completely disconnected from themselves and are unaware of these changes. Ignoring these changes can often result in depression, anger, and even violence for both men and their loved ones.
Helping the men in our life – whether they be partners, friends, colleagues or employees – transition safely through this potentially difficult period, I believe, is a moral imperative not only for the people in their life but for society at large.
IMS is completely reversible. It starts with the recognition that these changes have occurred. Then it moves through a comprehensive hormonal and biological assessment and strategy as well as psychotherapeutic help.
As the mother of a young boy, I wish from the bottom of my heart that, as a community and as a society, we start to empower our boys and our men with the tools of self-connection, self-compassion and emotional intelligence as well as educate them on the myths surrounding their ‘masculinity’, their biology and their physical and mental health. For the sake of their own safety and that of the other men and women in their lives.