Someone says something and it bothers you? After a while, someone says something to you again and… it bothers you. No matter how they tell you, your reaction is always the same: maximum irritation.
When the slightest inconvenience bothers you greatly. The smallest setbacks get on your nerves. And even the lightest sounds turn into infernal noises, it is likely that you are going through a period of irritability.
It happens to all of us. But the fact that it is so common does not mean that it is beneficial. Being in a bad mood is neither pleasant nor advisable because it will end up affecting your relationships and souring your character.
What is irritability and how does it manifest?
Irritability is a state that involves feelings of anger, frustration and impatience that generate a disproportionate reaction to relatively inconsequential situations. However, it is not a merely emotional state. Also your nervous system is tense and defensive, as if your nerves are on edge. In fact, irritability is an affective state that ranges from mild annoyance to intense anger, accompanied by excessive nervous reactivity.
Irritability usually manifests itself with impulsive reactions, often angry, so it is not strange that you end up lashing out at people, for no apparent reason. This bad temper leads you to react completely disproportionately to situations that at other times you could perfectly ignore. Virtually anything anyone says or does makes your blood boil and you react as if it were the biggest offense in the world.
Feeling irritable is also often accompanied by feelings of agitation and impatience. It’s hard to concentrate for long periods of time when you’re irritable, so your performance suffers, adding even more frustration and anxiety to the equation.
Why do I feel irritable?
First of all, it is important to clarify that irritability can have physiological causes. Low blood sugar levels may be one of the causes as stress hormones such as cortisol are activated, which can cause more aggressive reactions in some people and, at the same time, make it difficult to control impulses and manage emotions.
Lack of sleep is another common cause of irritability. If we don’t sleep well, our mood suffers, we tend to feel more stressed and mentally exhausted, which reduces our self-control and can make us more irritable.
Other conditions, such as dementia, premenstrual syndrome, thyroid problems or even a nutritional deficiency can also make us feel more irritable, which is why it is always advisable to rule out any medical cause. In fact, irritability is also a common symptom in conditions that cause chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia.
However, in most cases irritability is due to psychological causes. Sustained stress, day after day, is usually one of the main explanations for irritability.
When we have a very busy schedule and we have to juggle to manage everything, we end up suffering great mental exhaustion. The weight of those obligations and tensions can make it more difficult to keep our mood under control, so irritability appears.
Feeling irritable can also be a symptom of mental disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, losing your temper is relatively common in these disorders.
However, in many cases feeling irritable is the result of pent-up frustration. When things do not go as we expected, it is common for layers of disappointment and disillusionment to accumulate, so irritability does not take long to appear as a response to that feeling of failure and helplessness.
How to stop feeling irritable?
First of all, it is important to understand that anyone has a bad day. We all suffer ups and downs. There are days when we can do everything and others when everything is too much. It’s not every day we can be smiling. There are days when we may feel irritable. It is normal.
However, when irritability lasts longer than necessary and those storm clouds continue overhead, conditioning the way we react, we must stop and ask ourselves what is wrong in our lives.
Try to understand its cause
Irritability is not a problem but a symptom of something else. If every time you meet someone you get irritated, the problem is not the others, but you. Therefore, the first step is to try to understand the emotions that are at the base of that sensation. It is likely that you will discover that irritability is just the cap on a bottle that is containing emotions such as sadness, frustration or disappointment…
Neuroscientists at UCLA found that the simple act of naming what we feel reduces the activation of the amygdala, which means that it reduces the intensity of those emotions. Therefore, identifying our emotions and feelings is a very powerful self-control tool to reduce irritability and feel better quickly.
Sometimes, feeling irritable is the result of the accumulation of tensions, a series of problems, inconveniences and minor setbacks that generate stress. If so, it is advisable that you assume a psychological distance that allows you to regain control. In that case, ask yourself before you react: how much will this really affect me? Will I remember it tomorrow or next week? This way you can see the bigger picture and realize that losing your temper is completely unnecessary.
Restructure your thoughts
Become aware of the thoughts that run through your mind as they could be fueling that irritability. Try rephrasing them in a more positive way. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, you might start thinking “I hate traffic” or “I can’t stand it,” but those thoughts feed your irritability and will only make you feel worse. Instead, you could think of something positive you will do when you arrive at your destination.
It is very easy to overlook the good things and focus on the negative, especially when we are going through a bad patch or see the world through a gray prism. Try to stick more to the facts instead of letting emotions take over. And whenever possible, take a step back and ask yourself: what do I appreciate right now?
Change things by setting achievable goals
On many occasions, feeling irritable is the result of frustration, of perceiving that we are stuck in a routine or a stage of our life. If that is the case, it is advisable to introduce changes that allow us to feel that we are moving forward and introduce an element of novelty that acts as psychological oxygen. Set small goals that you can manage and take it step by step.
Thoughts such as: “I can’t stand being here one more minute” or “I’m about to explode” increase irritability. Your body will respond accordingly by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone, and everything will go downhill. A study carried out at the University of Catania found that deep breathing can break this vicious circle as it slows down the heart rate, reduces the amount of cortisol and reduces physical and mental agitation.
Diaphragmatic breathing, for example, is an effective technique because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our natural relaxation response. When we breathe deeply we can better control our emotions and stop irritability in its tracks. Obviously, the ideal is to pay more attention to our body and apply breathing exercises when irritability rises to a 5, not wait for it to reach a 9 out of 10.
Take care of yourself and relax more
It’s easier said than done, especially in a world that seems to spin faster and faster, but tension is the fuel that fuels irritability. That means that we must disconnect from time to time, pay more attention to ourselves and learn to relax. Spending time pampering and taking care of ourselves is not selfishness but a mental health need.
Self-care is about deliberately setting aside time to enjoy the things that make us feel good, from taking a hot bath to going for a walk in nature, reading a good book, or just relaxing all day. Sometimes irritability is just a sign that we need to spend time with ourselves. Therefore, slow down and take it easy.
Perciavalle, V. et. Al. (2017) The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences; 38: 451–458.
Lieberman, M. D. et. Al. (2007) Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci; 18(5): 421-428.