Pissed Off and Buffed Up

How long does ‘roid rage last?

Chris Benoit

A steroids-induced “rage” may have played a role in the murder-suicide case of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and son last weekend and then hanged himself by the pulley of his weightlifting machine. Wrestling officials argued that steroids couldn’t be the cause of death because Benoit’s actions took place over several days, which suggested deliberation instead of rage. How long does ‘roid rage last?

It depends on the ‘roid and the person who’s using it. Steroids-induced rage takes many forms, but in general, it’s characterized by mania, mood swings, impatience, paranoia, and uncontrollable aggression. Sometimes the performance-enhancing drugs also cause psychosis, depression, or suicidal thoughts; other times they actually relieve depression. The specific psychological effects depend on the type of drug, its dosage, and the method of administration, as well as the individual brain chemistry of the user. ‘Roid rage can come in short outbursts, cyclical bouts, or a long-lasting period of psychosis. These problems can be temporary, or they can recur for almost a year after a long-lasting oil-based injection.

Steroid use has been blamed for violence in a number of high-profile deaths. In 2003, Taylor Hooton, a 17-year-old Texan, hanged himself after taking Anadrol and Deca 300. Hooton’s parents said that the high-school baseball player became irritable and angry after he started doping, stealing money and punching a rival so hard the wound needed nine stitches. In 1998, a former Mr. Universe named Bertil Fox was convicted for the double murder of his former fiancee and her mother, and bodybuilding couple Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan will soon be on trial for suffocating their assistant.

It’s not always easy to sort out what’s causing what, however. Some research suggests that people who are prone to steroid abuse are also more susceptible to personality disorders and run-ins with the law. And despite all these stories of violence, the vast majority of steroid users don’t seem to suffer any of the effects of ‘roid rage. Some studies on aggression and anabolic steroids have found little connection between the two, but other evidence suggests that the high doses taken by athletes can sometimes cause serious psychological changes. (A double-blind, randomized study published in 2000 produced manic episodes in 4 percent of the test subjects.) Conditions might be very different outside of the laboratory, however. For example, athletes often “stack,” or take a number of steroids at the same time, which could lead to unpredictable side effects.

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Explainer thanks Antonia Baum of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, Linn Goldberg of Oregon Health Sciences University, and Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency.