Irritability: What to understand and how to manage

by | Mar 23, 2021

what is irritability

One more smidgen of stimuli and you’ll blow. To keep it from happening you’re staying away from people – life. But you hate doing that. Listen, irritability can be more than just a grouchy mood. Here’s what to understand and how to manage…

Looks like our friend above is having a go with irritability. Maybe he just got up on the wrong side of the bed. Perhaps he has generalized anxiety disorder. Who knows? I just hope he’ll be proactive in managing it.

Irritability is no fun – for the “irritabilitee” and those around her/him. In addition to being something anyone may experience, irritability is a symptom of numerous emotional/mental and physical disorders. To name a few: generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, low blood sugar, and PMS.

All things considered, I think irritability merits a chat.

What is irritability?

No doubt, you have a handle on what irritability is; however, let’s go ahead and look at a formal definition. I like this one from Psychology Wiki…

“An excessive response to stimuli. It may be viewed as both an emotional state and a personality trait. The term irritability is both used for the physiological reaction to stimuli and for the psychological, abnormal or excessive sensitivity to stimuli. Irritability may manifest in behavioural responses to both physiological as well as behavioural stimuli – the latter including areas of environmental, situational, sociological, and emotional stimulus.”

As though irritability isn’t enough, frequently accompanying it are concentration issues or confusion, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, and fast or shallow breathing. That makes sense, given irritability often triggers our fight/flight response.

Let’s keep in mind that irritability can be a cycling disaster. I don’t have to tell you that when we’re irritable, the little things bother us more. And the resulting tension and unrest can make us even more sensitive, turning little things into big things. So irritability intensifies and the cycling begins.

It’s important to point out that irritability presents in a variety of ways. When I’m irritable, I tend to isolate – not wanting to subject myself to unwanted stimuli. An even bigger sign is a gnawing feeling of anxiety and unsettledness. It took me a while to connect the dots on that one, but I know my read is correct. 

What causes irritability?

what is irritability

“I’m irritable. And I bite.”

In reviewing the causes of irritability, let’s begin with some neurophysiology. I mean, for irritability to present, something has to be happening in the brain, right?

For chronic cases of irritability that have no known cause, studies have pointed a finger at these major brain neural systems: prefrontal areas that drive inhibitory control and emotional regulation, areas of the cortex and below that manage reward processing as it applies to frustrating stimuli, and regions of the cortex and below involved with threat and arousal processing, particularly when it comes to social fairness or social threat.

Now, any of us can become irritable most any time. That’s just part of being human. But if we become extremely irritable, or experience irritability for extended periods of time, we may be dealing with underlying emotional/mental and/or physical situations that may require attention.

Consider these common causes…

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (other anxiety presentations)
  • Stress
  • Autism
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Low blood sugar
  • Ear infection
  • Toothache
  • Diabetes and related symptoms
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Flu
  • Menopause
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (POS)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Substance use disorders (including caffeine and nicotine)

As with any condition we discuss, identifying the cause – triggers – of our irritability is crucial in securing relief.

How is irritability treated?

When it comes to treating troubling irritability, again, understanding its cause is crucial. If one is experiencing irritability and has been diagnosed with any of the above, it makes sense that treating the malady will likely bring relief. So treatment is driven by the underlying cause.

Managing lifestyle habits is huge when it comes to dealing with irritability. You know the biggies: sleep, exercise, stress, diet, meditation, breathing techniques, and more. Journaling and mood tracking are also helpful. 

I came across an excellent article on Psychology Today that’s a great fit here. 7 Quick Ways to Stop Being Irritable, by Guy Winch, PhD, offers some great insight and advice. Here’s a summary of his “7 Quick Ways”…

  1. Figure out the source: And address it.
  2. Reduce caffeine and alcohol
  3. It’s often the little things: Just because they “shouldn’t” doesn’t mean they don’t. Even acknowledging irritability often takes the edge off.
  4. Get in touch with your compassion: To yourself first, then others you may be impacting.
  5. Gain perspective: Think about what’s going well, and things for which you can be grateful.
  6. Rid yourself of nervous energy:  In the irritable immediate, consider a quick walk or run. Maybe some push-ups or crunches. Become as physical as you’re able.
  7. Get quiet or alone time: Take a break and think things through. Listen to music, meditate, do some yoga, etc.

Keep moving forward

Irritability is a fact of life – we’re human. But when it becomes intense, or sticks around for extended periods of time, we need to self-examine and get some help. It’s only fair to ourselves and those around us.

So, being irritable because you got up on the wrong side of the bed or because you have an emotional/mental or physical disorder: now you’ve added knowledge to aid in management.

Be proactive.

I encourage you to read Dr. Winch’s article on Psychology Today: 7 Quick Ways to Stop Being Irritable. Thanks to Healthline for a portion of the info.

As long as you’re on a reading and learning roll, don’t stop now. Review the hundreds of Chipur titles.



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