August 8, 2022

Feeling Irritable? Why You’re Irritated and What To Do About It

What causes irritability and 7 strategies to cope

Person relaxing and reading a book while drinking tea.

Your partner left their socks on the floor, and now there’s steam coming out of your ears. Your boss gave you some less-than-constructive advice, and that angry vein on your forehead feels like it’s about to pop. You’re watching the news, and wishing everyone would just shut up already.

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If you’re feeling irritated these days, you’re not alone.

“Given the stress of the 24-hour news cycle, social media doomscrolling, and worry about family, finances and the future — it’s understandable why irritability is a common response,” says clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

But that doesn’t mean irritation has to be your default mood.

We talked with Dr. Borland about what may be causing your irritability and ways you can manage your frustration.

What is irritability?

If you’re irritated, you may notice you become easily upset or frustrated. Often, irritability looks and feels like an overreaction to a situation. You may notice that your reaction is more intense than is necessary, or someone in your life may have pointed it out to you (hopefully in a constructive way that didn’t make your blood boil).

“Feelings of agitation, frustration and impatience are all signs of irritability,” Dr. Borland says. “It’s also not uncommon for these feelings to ebb and flow.”

Why am I irritable?

Everyday annoyances can create a level of irritability, and there are some medical causes as well, Dr. Borland notes. While by no means exhaustive, he shares some of the most common sources of irritability.

Life stress

Even on good days, irritations creep up in many aspects of our lives. Dr. Borland compares living in these times to being akin to a computer browser with too many tabs open. There’s just too much happening at any given time.

We lead busy lives. All those responsibilities you’re juggling — at home and at work — take up a lot of space in your mind. The weight of your must-dos can make it harder to keep your mood in check.

Irritability can stem from life stressors like:

  • Relationships (romantic, family and others).
  • Financial worries.
  • Isolation.
  • Loneliness.
  • Job and work dynamics.
  • Burnout.

Sleep (or lack thereof)

Getting quality ZZZs can make all the difference in your mood.

“We are a sleep-deprived society,” Dr. Borland states. “Sleep deprivation can lead to and fuel our irritability.”

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia can leave you groggy and irritable as well.

While some people will tell you that eight hours of sleep is the be-all-end-all, Dr. Borland says consistent, restorative sleep should be your goal. If you wake up exhausted after eight hours of shut-eye, you might need more sleep or better sleep.

Caffeine

If you wake up tired, reaching for an extra cup o’ joe or energy drink is just what you need to kickstart the day with minimal irritation, right? Probably not, Dr. Borland says.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and that jolt of energy is followed by a crash when it’s gone. Especially if you’re a heavy caffeine consumer, both under-caffeinated and over-caffeinated can trigger irritability. And there’s a fine line between the two.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends healthy adults consume no more than 400 milligrams a day of caffeine. That’s about four or five cups of coffee.

Getting “hangry

Being ‘hangry” (hungry + angry) is a real thing, Dr. Borland says. (Merriam-Webster dictionary agrees.)

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“A drop in blood sugar can certainly cause feelings of irritability and impatience,” Dr. Borland says.

When your blood sugar gets too low, it triggers a cascade of hormones, including cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone). The release of cortisol can cause aggression in some people. Low blood sugar also may interfere with higher brain functions, such as those that help us control impulses and regulate our primitive drives and behavior.

Medical causes

Irritability can be a symptom of a medical condition as well. It’s often associated with:

Studies show that irritability can also be associated with a major depressive episode and that irritable children are more likely to experience depression and mood disorders as adults.

Strategies for coping with irritability

Managing irritability is important for your health, your relationships and your long-term well-being.

“Irritability can lead to depression, anxiety, panic, anger management issues, substance abuse and other conditions,” Dr. Borland says. “Irritability in and of itself is probably manageable. Left unchecked, though, it can lead to more significant concerns.”

Irritability can also affect your quality of life, including your relationships and your work. After all, who wants to be around Grumpy Gus day in and day out?

Dr. Borland suggests these seven strategies to keep irritability at bay.

1. Reframe your thoughts

One strategy for overcoming negativity is to restructure how you’re thinking about the things you’re finding irritating.

For example: If you dread going to work on Monday and your thoughts center on, “I hate my job,” try instead to consider something positive about your work environment. Maybe it’s a work friend you go to lunch with or a nice view from your office.

Or maybe you’re irritated that you should be able to run a 10-minute mile, but you’re stuck at 12 minutes. Instead of thinking in terms of “should,” you can reframe that as, “My goal is a 10-minute mile.” Semantics matter, even in the confines of your mind.

“It really comes down to gratitude,” Dr. Borland says. “It’s so easy to overlook the good things and focus on the bad things. Instead, take a step back and think, ‘What do I appreciate in this moment?’”

2. Set small, manageable goals

A never-ending to-do list can be unwieldy and irritating. Knowing you have approximately a zillion things to do can leave anyone feeling irritable. Dr. Borland suggests breaking up your tasks into bite-sized chunks and congratulating yourself when you complete each step.

3. Breathe

Research shows that taking deep breaths in times of stress not only makes you feel less agitated, but also slows down your heart rate and lowers the amount of cortisol in your body.

Dr. Borland suggests making a habit of practicing some deep breathing techniques for at least a few minutes each day. Your device’s app store likely has dozens of meditation and breathing apps to choose from as you get started.

“The great thing about deep breathing is once you become accustomed to it, you can do it whenever, wherever,” Dr. Borland says. “It can be a really effective tool because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our natural relaxation response.”

When you become better connected with your breath and controlling your breathing to manage your emotions, it becomes a useful tool to stop irritability in its tracks.

“Ideally, if you are more in tune with your body and what it’s telling you, you can start to do some breathing when your irritability is at 5 out of 10, rather than when it’s a 9 out of 10,” Dr. Borland says.

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4. Exercise

When you get your body moving and your heart pumping, you release endorphins — chemicals that relieve pain, reduce stress and improve your overall sense of well-being. Think of endorphins as your body’s built-in stress-reduction system.

Making a habit of getting some physical activity keeps those feel-good chemicals pumping and can help improve your mood.

5. Practice self-care (it’s not selfish)

Dr. Borland equates taking time out for yourself to “filling up your tank.”

“We have to prioritize self-care,” Dr. Borland stresses. “Unfortunately, we often confuse self-care with selfishness — that taking time out for ourselves means we’re neglecting other things in our lives. I often remind my patients that investing in self-care can result in closer and healthier relationships, improved sleep, and better work performance.”

Self-care is about deliberately setting aside time for yourself to enjoy things that lift your mood. For some people that can be:

  • Reading.
  • Taking a bubble bath.
  • Going for a walk.
  • Spending a night out with friends.

6. Make time for downtime

These days, human beings can seem more like human doings, Dr. Borland says. Often, irritability flares up when we haven’t let ourselves have enough time to just … be. Slow down and take some time for downtime.

Some ways you can slow down:

  • Take some time to be in nature quietly.
  • Let yourself get lost in a book.
  • Purposefully leave your phone in another room for a set amount of time each day.

7. Share your thoughts and feelings

Putting your thoughts into words is an important way to help you identify your feelings and not be trapped by them.

Dr. Borland suggests talking with your support system, whomever they may be. Not only can talking about your problems allow you to gain clarity and advice, but it can also help strengthen your bond with those you confide in.

“Oftentimes, people are afraid of burdening others with their troubles,” Dr. Borland notes. “The reality is you may actually be given that person that gift by saying, ‘Let’s open up, let’s talk about this.’ You can also give them an opening to talk about their experiences.”

Another way to release your thoughts is through writing.

“Writing can be very therapeutic and allows us to organize our thoughts,” Dr. Borland says.

To get started, try writing down:

  • Three things that you’re happy about.
  • Three things you’re appreciative for.
  • Three things that frustrated you and how you managed them.

Time to see a healthcare provider about your irritability?

We all deserve to live the best lives possible. Managing your emotional response will not only improve your daily functioning, but can also improve your relationships with others.

Dr. Borland says there’s no wrong time to seek the support of a licensed mental health expert.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had several patients express feeling guilty, embarrassed or disappointed in themselves for coming to therapy. It’s important to remember that asking for help and receiving help isn’t a sign of weakness,” he adds. “I try to remind my patients that it takes a lot of courage to face their problems head-on rather than pretend like they don’t exist.”

Working with a healthcare provider can help you to better understand what may be triggering your irritability and develop strategies for coping with irritation.

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