Irritability describes a state of being easily annoyed or frustrated, not necessarily angry but liable to lash out at any moment. When we are irritable, things that normally would not bother us tend to become huge annoyances (Winch, 2015). We may also experience sweating, a racing heartbeat, and quicker breathing along with feeling irritable (Khan, 2019). One international study found that over 99% of participants had experienced irritability at some point, with common causes including stress, having one’s goals disrupted, and negative actions of other people (Toohey, 2020). Whatever its cause, experiencing irritability can be incredibly unpleasant; this mood can lead to significant distress, create conflicts with others (Digiuseppe & Tafrate, 2001), and is linked to many psychological and physiological issues (Eske, 2019; Khan, 2019). Because of this, it is important to realize how to overcome feelings of irritability in the moment and how to prevent feeling frustrated in the future.
LIFE Intelligence is an emotional regulation app available on iOS or Android that can help you manage stress, anxiety, and other challenges that might make you feel irritable. LIFE comprises a 9 Mission program designed to improve functioning in many areas of your life, centering around your relationships, career, and self. This includes a variety of mood regulation exercises you can use on-the-spot when you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.
One of the first things you can do to address irritability is to ask yourself where it came from (Winch, 2015). It is easy to remain annoyed just for the sake of being annoyed, but we can help to push back these feelings by trying to get to the root of this mood. For example, are you frustrated because you are running late and you are stuck behind a slow-moving car? Because someone beat you at a board game? Because a stranger said something rude to you on the bus? Sometimes, our reasons for getting upset are small, and we can start to gain a greater perspective on our problems once we identify where they came from.
One method of getting to the root cause of the issue is the “Five Whys” technique (Serrat, 2017). This problem-solving technique requires that you start with the problem you are facing (e.g., that you are irritable), then ask why that problem is taking place. You will continue to ask “why?” four more times (give or take a couple), getting closer and closer to an underlying cause. You can stop asking “why?” when asking this question yields no more information or when the answer to the question is something that is out of your control.
If you find yourself frustrated and you would like to use the Five Whys, start by asking “Why am I irritable?” You might answer “Because the driver on the road ahead of me is going 5 MPH under the speed limit and I am in a hurry.” Then, you would ask, “Why am I in a hurry?” to which you might say “Because I spent too much time getting ready at home,” and so on. Once you get to a deeper cause, you can begin to address the issue not just from its symptoms but from its roots.
When you reflect on the sources of your irritability, you may realize that there is no reason to be annoyed (Winch, 2015). For example, will being frustrated at another driver help you get to work faster? Is annoyance an appropriate reaction to losing a game? Should you let a stranger’s rude comment dampen your day? Our emotions are valid and important to recognize, but sometimes they are irrational and can cause further psychological distress. Once we understand where our irritable mood comes from, we should ask ourselves if this mood is appropriate or useful for the situation.
Although modern research into irritability is still in its early stages (Toohey & DiGiuseppe, 2017), many techniques for emotional regulation have already been developed and have been used for millennia. For example, central to Stoicism, an ancient Greek school of thought, was the belief that in this world there are two categories of things: those that we can control and those that we cannot (Pigliucci, 2017; Murguia & Díaz, 2015). Of course, there are gray areas where we may exert some small influence or where we cannot be certain of how much control we wield, but nonetheless most things fit into this dichotomy. To this day, this philosophy remains influential in many therapeutic approaches; in fact, the originator of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most successful and common therapies in practice, even cites stoic philosophy as an important influence in the development of CBT (Murguia & Díaz, 2015).
The stoics believed that we should avoid strong emotional attachments (like anxiety or anger) to things that we cannot control—like the person driving in front of us, the time we get to work, or the thoughts of a stranger—as there will be nothing we can do to change their circumstances. Instead, we should focus our energies on that which we can control (Pigliucci, 2017; Murguia & Díaz, 2015). In other words, if there is nothing you can do to change the situation, try not to worry too much about it.
Another foundation of CBT which is influenced by Stoicism is the idea that our beliefs about events, and not the events themselves, determine our emotional reactions to them (Murguia & Díaz, 2015). In the words of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by their opinions about the things” (Murguia & Díaz, 2015, p. 39). This is epitomized in the “ABC” model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which states that an activating event (“A”) is interpreted by a belief system (“B”), leading to a certain set of consequences (“C”). We cannot change the activating event, as that is external to us, but we can change our belief system and thus yield a different set of consequences.
This philosophy can be invaluable in times of emotional turbulence or stress, especially when external events make us anxious or angry. For example, if you run into a long line at the grocery store and your mindset is “I can’t believe this—just my luck!” then you are likely to feel irritable or on edge. But you are more likely to remain calm if you instead think “I’ve got plenty of time anyway, and there’s no use getting upset about it because that won’t change anything.” In this way, changing your belief system about the same event can alter its consequences and reduce your feelings of frustration.
Finally, we can gain perspective by looking at the bigger picture (Winch, 2015). If you are feeling annoyed about something, ask yourself how likely it is that it will still be bothering you in a day, a week, or a month. Oftentimes, the things that bother us most are smaller annoyances or vicissitudes that will clear up quicker than we realize (Winch, 2015). If you feel calm enough, you may even try reflecting on the things in your life for which you are grateful; gratitude may serve as a powerful antidote to feelings of irritability (Winch, 2015).
If you can, disengage from the situation that is irritating you (Winch, 2015). You may want to find a quiet place to sit and rest. It could also be helpful to engage in something that relaxes you, such as yoga, meditation, or muscle relaxation (Winch, 2015; Digiuseppe & Tafrate, 2001). For some, eating can even help quell irritability, validating the classic saying “got a problem, get some food” (Toohey & DiGiuseppe, 2017). If you are feeling worked up, you can use up extra energy by going on a walk, run, or exercising in any other way. Whether you choose to relax or be more active, removing yourself from the situation will help you to cool off and clear your mind.
In addition to in-the-moment techniques, there are also a variety of things we can do to improve our lifestyle and prevent irritable moods in the future. One thing that will help is eating a well-balanced, nutrient rich diet (Eske, 2019). This includes minimizing caffeine and alcohol intake, both of which can make us feel more irritated (Winch, 2015). Exercising regularly will also help to reduce irritability, and exercise is generally beneficial to psychological and physical health (Eske, 2019). It is also essential to maintain a regular sleep schedule, as interruptions or deprivation of sleep can cause episodes of irritability (Eske, 2019; Khan, 2019). Finally, engaging in regular relaxation or meditation practice can help to stave off feelings of frustration (Eske, 2019).
If you are experiencing constant irritability that will not go away, talk to a doctor. Persistent irritability can be a result of psychological problems like stress or disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder (Eske, 2019; Khan, 2019); alternatively, it could be related to a physiological problem that needs to be medically addressed. These can include low blood sugar, infections, hormonal imbalance, and drug use or withdrawal (Eske, 2019; Khan, 2019). The above tips will be effective in tackling everyday irritability, but if your irritable mood is not going away or related to another issue, it may require medical treatment.
Everyone is familiar with the experience of being irritable. Irritability can cause significant distress, not only for the person experiencing it but for those around them. Fortunately, there are a number of techniques and treatment options available which can help you to overcome feeling annoyed or frustrated, both on-the-spot and in the long term. When you are feeling irritable, take a break from what is frustrating you if you can. Manage your feelings of irritability by searching for their root cause and gaining a better and more rational perspective on your beliefs and emotions. These techniques, combined with leading a healthy lifestyle, can help you overcome issues with irritability both now and in the future.
LIFE Intelligence is one app for every aspect of your LIFE. Our 9-topic self-development journey provides science-backed content, exercises, and reflections to help you better understand and manage yourself and others. Our mood tracker and emotional management toolkit helps you deal with difficult situations on the fly. These combined help you comprehensively manage stress and anxiety, improve work productivity and career fulfillment, and build lasting relationships.
Digiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R. C. (2001). A comprehensive treatment model for anger disorders. Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 38(3), 262-271. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232562873_A_Comprehensive_Treatment_Model_for_Anger_Disorders
Eske, J. (2019). What causes irritability? MedicalNewsToday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325564
Kahn, A. (2019). What causes irritability? Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/irritability
Murguia, E., & Díaz, K. (2015). The philosophical foundations of cognitive behavioral therapy: Stoicism, buddhism, taoism, and existentialism. Journal of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychotherapies, 15(1), 37-50. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-15699-004
Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a stoic. Basic Books.
Serrat, O. (2017). The five whys technique. Knowledge solutions (pp. 307-310). Springer Nature.
Toohey, M. J. (2020). Irritability characteristics and parameters in an international sample. Journal of Affective Disorders, 263, 558-567. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31989992/
Toohey, M. J., & DiGiuseppe, R. (2017). Defining and measuring irritability: Construct clarification and differentiation. Clinical Psychology Review, 53, 93-108. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ez-salve.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0272735815301458
Winch, G. (2015). 7 quick ways to stop being irritable. PsychologyToday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201510/7-quick-ways-stop-being-irritable