Maggie is a working mother with two children and a struggling marriage. She’s finding that her fuse gets shorter and shorter each day. When talking things over with friends, she has to confess that at times she simply “snaps” on her children, a fact which she feels incredibly guilty about because she knows that for the most part, all they want is her attention. It seems that a thousand thoughts, feelings, and obligations simultaneously require her attention, and she just can’t get a break. The ideas that “I must always have it together” or “I have to stay on top of it” are consistently at the fore of her mind.
Charles works in a high-stress environment where management is consistently moving the target just as he is about to accomplish what’s been asked for. To make matters worse, he is consistently put down by his boss, a perpetual bully. Nevertheless, Charles puts a smile on his face and tends to his duties. Recently while at home, his wife made an observation about the dirty dishes being left in the sink and Charles lashed out with a few four-letter words before dismissing himself to go on a walk to calm down. It felt as though he’d been sitting on a volcano so long, the lid just blew off.
Terry is graduate student who is finding it increasingly difficult to manage her time given the sheer volume of reading and course work that must be completed each week. She held it down for the first 18-months of her Tier-1 research graduate program, but she’s developed some maladaptive habits en route to doing so. Her day begins with a cigarette, three shots of espresso over ice, an and energy drink after lunch, which is typically a granola bar or a cup of Ramen noodles. Dinner is usually fast food, or even worse, beer. She knows this trend can’t continue, but sees no light at the end of the tunnel.
Irritability can happen to anyone.
Do you find yourself becoming short tempered and excessively frustrated over things that, in the past, would never lead to such a reaction? That sounds like irritability. The good news is that irritability is typically simply one way the mind tells the rest of your body, “You need a break!” If we just kept going along with our busy lives without our mind or body intervening, serious physical and/or emotional problems can result. We must take time and listen to what our mind and body is saying.
What causes irritability?
Often times, irritability is a result of a sensory overload from environmental factors. In other words, stress related to relationship difficulties, work, or unexpected life events such as birth of a child, divorce, taking care of an aging parent all can contribute to irritability.
From a physiological perspective, use of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine as well as depressants like alcohol can relieve tension temporarily as all three substances act on the central nervous system to release a higher amount of dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter in our brain) than what is naturally released. The downside is that our brains have to rebalance after the excessive release, which leaves us more susceptible to irritability. In this sense, irritability can be a withdrawal symptom.
Irritability can also point to something more meaningful about you or your relationships. For example, a wife who is frequently irritated with her husband for seemingly innocuous things may have a number of more legitimate grievance stored up that have simply gone unexpressed. As when our external environment overwhelms us and causes anxiety, sometimes our internal emotional landscape can be overwhelming too. When we’re unable to express that directly, it may come out “sideways” as irritability.
Coping with Irritability
When irritability strikes, you may feel the need to take the edge off immediately! A hot cup of coffee may help with focus when a major deadline must be met, a five minute cigarette break provides just enough space to collect my thoughts before helping the kids with homework, and that glass of beer at the end of the day sure helps put me right to sleep. Some of these habits may be productive, but others may be less so. Depending on the feelings induced by substances as a primary way to cope with irritability is unlikely to be successful long term. Likewise, yelling and taking frustrations out on others provides temporary relief, but that is not fair to friends and family.
So, what are healthy steps to cope with irritability?
1. Be Mindful: Mindfulness is a concept that has been around for thousands of years that encourages one to simply observe and identify thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment in the moment.
How does this help? Having awareness of the body and mind’s present state helps to identify triggers of stress, frustration, anxiety, etc. as well as creates enough space to act rather than react to these triggers.
2. Radical Acceptance: Different from ordinary acceptance, radical acceptance is when one stops fighting reality and has complete and total acceptance of a situation. It is not the situation itself, but the pushing back against “what is” that causes so much distress.
How does this help? Perception of experience shapes our reality. In other words, the world keeps spinning regardless of how you feel, so being in acceptance of this empowers you to make your life what you want it to be.
3. One thing at a time: Multitasking is a necessity this day and age, but the reality is we can only do one thing at a time. Period. Having a full plate can be quite overwhelming and we end up feeling stuck when the full weight of our responsibilities is bearing down. Make a conscious effort to complete the first task then move on to the next.
How does help? Prioritization is key to accomplishing all of life’s tasks. Just take things in stride!
4. Do the opposite: If irritability persists, act in opposition to the present emotion. For example, if I become angry with my spouse for not cleaning the house after I have been working all day and he has been at home, instead of yelling and criticizing, I may do the opposite and give him praise for making dinner.
How does this help? Taking action in opposition to how we feel is a way to put energy into something that will eventually allow us to feel better.
5. Express the unexpressed: Most people tend not to want to express their more “vulnerable” emotions, but why not try it? Saying “I’m afraid that you ______ ” or “I’m sad about _______” can go a long way in relieving irritability toward another person, if for no other reason than that you have been honest and vulnerable with them.
How does this help? When you squeeze one side of a balloon, all of the air rushes to the other side and causes it to swell. In this same way, squeezing off particular emotions like sadness or fear is likely to lead to a “swelling” somewhere else. If you don’t express emotions for a long enough time, they’re bound to come out looking like anxiety or irritability. Likewise, when you do express them, pressure returns to normal.
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