What Is Irritability?

Man looking irritated at his phone

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What Is Irritability?

Irritability involves feelings of anger or frustration that often arise over even the smallest of things.

While irritability can be normal and everyone experiences it on occasion, it may also be an indicator of an underlying condition.

If you are experiencing feelings of irritability that are persistent, pervasive, or distressing, talk to your doctor. Such feelings can become excessive and interfere with your daily life, making it difficult to accomplish your normal daily tasks and can disrupt your relationships with others. 

Irritability may be a symptom of a number of things including stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use, anxiety, bipolar disorder, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), sleep deprivation, autism spectrum disorders, dementia, chronic pain, and schizophrenia.

Irritability is a common emotion that many people experience on a fairly regular basis. When people feel irritable, small annoyances that they might normally ignore become a source of agitation and anger.

Symptoms

Irritability can lead to a number of different behaviors and feelings. Some of the common signs of irritability include:

  • Agitation, frustration, and annoyance
  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making accommodations or changing plans
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Oversensitivity
  • Short temper
  • Tension

People who are feeling irritable won’t necessarily experience all of these symptoms or feel symptoms all of the time. They might feel fine in one moment, but a small annoyance might set them off. The ensuing reaction may seem out of proportion to the situation. This often leads to further tension that makes the individual even more sensitive and responsive to stress.

Identifying Irritability

If you have been experiencing irritability regularly, it's important that you reach out to a medical or mental health professional. During your appointment, your doctor will talk to you about the duration, severity, and impact of your symptoms. You will be asked about your medical history, medications you are taking, and your lifestyle habits.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and may run lab tests to rule out any medical conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes, for example, can cause feelings of irritability. 

You may also be asked to fill out a questionnaire to screen for symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Causes

There are a number of things that can cause irritability. Most people experience irritable moods from time to time, but excessive and prolonged periods of irritability can be a sign of an underlying physical or mental health condition. Some possible causes include:

During childhood, more irritable moods can be normal during certain periods of development. However, they can also be an indicator of a condition such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Treatment

Treatment for irritability depends upon your doctor's diagnosis. Relieving feelings of irritability involves treating the underlying causes.

Mental Health and Irritability

For irritability caused by mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, your doctor may recommend psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both. Medications such as antidepressants and other mood-stabilizing drugs may be prescribed.

Medical Conditions and Irritability

For symptoms caused by a medical condition such as a hormonal imbalance or diabetes, your doctor will recommend treatment that is appropriate for your specific needs.

Regardless of the underlying cause, your doctor may also recommend lifestyle modifications that may help improve your mood. Getting more sleep and following a healthy diet, for example, may be helpful.

Coping

If you are dealing with feelings of irritability, there are a number of different strategies that you can use to cope.

You may find that some techniques work better for you than others, so it may take some experimentation to determine what strategies help you the most.

  • Eat healthy and nutritious foods: Following a healthy diet and avoiding excessive high-fat, high-sugar foods can help you feel better overall, which may help boost your mood.
  • Engage in regular physical activity: Regular exercise has been shown to have a beneficial effect on depression, so spend some time moving each day, whether it's a session of cardio at the gym or a walk around the block.
  • Identify your triggers: While some people may feel irritable most of the time, in other cases you may find that there are certain situations that trigger these moods. Pay attention to the times when you feel the most irritated. Do you find yourself getting annoyed at a specific time of day, following certain events, or around certain people? Once you better understand what precipitates these feelings, you’ll be better able to look for ways to prevent irritable moods.
  • Learn new relaxation techniques: Strategies like deep breathing and visualization can help you calm your mind and body when you start to get agitated.
  • Practice good sleep habits: Sleep deprivation is a common cause of irritability, so focus on having a relaxing bedtime routine and going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Practice mindfulness: Research has found that mindfulness, a technique that involves focusing on the present moment, can be helpful in reducing symptoms of conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Seek social support: Having friends and family to lean on when you are coping with irritability can be helpful. Seeking social support and talking about your concerns with others can also combat fear, worry, and loneliness that may contribute to grouchy moods.
  • Try meditation: Research suggests that meditation can help people cope with stress and improve moods.
  • Write in a journal: Keeping a journal can help you look for patterns in your moods over time, which may help you better identify the things that trigger feelings of irritability. Consider keeping a gratitude journal, which may help you better focus on positive feelings and combat the stress and negativity that might contribute to feelings of agitation and annoyance.

While there are self-help strategies that can help relieve your irritable moods, you should always talk to your doctor if these feelings last for a long time or become excessive. Your doctor can determine what might be causing these feelings and recommend treatments that will help you feel better.

You may also want to consider online therapy as an option to help cope with feelings of irritability. Research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face treatment.

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