The Irritability Factor – How to Calm Down (or Why You Can’t)

irritabilityBeen on edge of late? Snapping at others without meaning too, and just feeling all around frustrated?

What can you do when grumpiness has you in its hold? And when is irritability a sign of something more serious? 

What causes irritability?

We can all be grumpy if we are  tired, or hungry. And medical issues, such as hormonal changes, anemia, or the onset of dementia, can be a cause. So rule out physical and medical issues first.  

Some of us are also naturally prone to being irritable. A British twin study found that irritability leading to depression had a genetic proponent. 

Otherwise, life changes are often the driver for irritability. The stress of things like losing a loved one, having to move country, or being made redundant pushes us to our limits, and forces us to adapt faster than is comfortable. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has left many of us irritable, with good reason. We have had to lose access to go-to comforts like seeing friends or working off steam at the gym, and we have less privacy and more interaction with those we live with than we are accustomed to. Or we might just be lonely and wondering when this all ends. 

When is your bad mood a big deal?

Irritability can affect our self-esteem. We feel guilty for our grumpiness. And if we allow irritability to become anger and lash out enough at those we love, or even those we work with, it can damage our relationships

If irritability is long-term and a consistent problem, it can also be a big deal as it can signify a mental health issue (more on that below).

[*Note that chronic irritability in children and adolescents is a different and serious issue that “predicts suicidality, social impairment, and depressive and anxiety disorders in adulthood.” (Leibenluft and Stoddard]. If this is an issue for your child, consider speaking with a child psychologist.]

How to manage your irritation

When it comes to stress-related irritability, what can be done?

1. Get honest about the source of your grumpiness.

Are you deep down feeling trapped in your relationship? Sick of your job? Or is your partner working from home making you crazy? Getting honest about the source of our changing mood can itself feel a big relief.

TRY THIS: Journal about what you think is causing your bad mood and then read what you wrote aloud. How does it sit in your body? Does it ‘feel’ true? If not, keep writing. 

2. Engage in self-compassion.

Again, one of irritability’s nastiest side effects is guilt. We worry we are a ‘bad person’, or ‘letting others down’ by being miserable. Self-compassion means extending the empathy you’d offer a friend to yourself.

TRY THIS: Write a letter to a friend having a similar tough time, offering them understanding. Then change the name at the top to your own and read it aloud.

3. Lower expectations.

The less we expect, the less there is to be upset about.

TRY THIS: Write down all your expectations then try to cross out all but three. How would it feel if this was all you expected from life and others at the moment?

4. Talk about how you feel. 

Our irritability can be something we hold against ourselves far more than those around us do, but our guilt can convince us otherwise. And the less we admit we know there is a problem, the more irritable we feel. 

TRY THIS: Reach out to those around you and admit that you know you are grumpy. Allow them to offer their feedback and understanding. If they can’t, work out boundaries between you so you can both do your best without more conflict.

2. Action and acceptance.

Acceptance and commitment therapy believes that low moods are connected to avoiding over accepting what is going on, which stops us from committing to the actions that can move us forward.

TRY THIS: Make one list of all the things you can’t change about the situation, and one of all the things you can. If it feels symbolic and helpful, rip up the list of things you can’t change. Then use something like SMART goals to make a list of action steps towards positive change. What small step can you do today?

4. Grow time.

Whatever it is you are dealing with that is frustrating you — moving through grief, adjusting to a new country, finding a new job –when is it you expect a solution by?

TRY THIS: Double the time container you come up with. So six months becomes a year. How much less stressful does it feel if you have more time?

5. Do your best with wellbeing.

We all know that things like alcohol, junk food binges, and too much caffeine raise irritability. And that exercise, healthy eating, and happy activities lower it.

TRY THIS: Make a list of all the wellbeing activities that make you feel good, from an intense workout to watching your favourite comedian. Then schedule three into this week’s schedule right now. 

6. Down compare.

If there is one way to feed our irritability it’s comparing ourselves to all the people around us who are apparently happy and successful and never seem to ‘have the hump’.

TRY THIS: Compare down. Not with others– it’s not about being mean and gossiping. But privately, for perspective, there’s nothing wrong with noticing that you are doing better than some people. 

7. Do something for someone else.

It’s actually science. Research shows volunteering gets us out of our heads and raises our moods.

Research drawn from the British Household Panel survey found that, “those who engaged in volunteering regularly appeared to experience higher levels of mental well-being than those who never volunteered”. 

Irritability and mental health

Irritability from stress is one thing.  But if the irritably continues after our stress is dealt with, it signifies a possible mental health issue. 

  1. Feel on edge all the time, and a growing sense of fear about the world around you? Your stress might have moved into anxiety disorder.
  2. Irritable because you are feel that nothing will ever go right again? And do you feel tired all the time for no reason? It’s possible you are developing depression.
  3. Do you feel low and irritable one minute, but full of energy and excitement the next? Your grumpiness might be connected to bipolar disorder.
  4. Does your irritability always lead to anger or tears? You might have unresolved childhood trauma or an unstable personality.
  5. Is the truth that you have always had bouts of irritability if things take too long, or you forget to do something important yet again? You might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  6. Does it drive you nuts that everyone else is so emotional and disorganised? It’s possible you have Asperger’s syndrome.
  7. Are you irritable because nobody in the world seems to make any sense, ever? Or understand you? Has this been going on since you were a young adult? Irritability is also connected to many personality disorders.

Sick of letting irritability ruin your relationships? Talk with a top London therapist and learn to manage your moods. Or use our booking platform to find a UK-wide online therapist now. 


Still have a question about irritability and how to handle it? Or want to share your top tip for dealing with grumpiness? Post in the comment box below. 

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