Do you find yourself constantly feeling on edge, easily annoyed, and frustrated with even the smallest things? We all experience irritability. Life rubs us the wrong way, our internal system arouses, and we experience discomforting states of irritation. It’s not uncommon to experience irritability from time to time, however, frequent irritation, being drawn into emotional states with every annoyance, greatly effects our daily life and relationships.
Psychology provides several possible reasons for heightened emotional states that we may experience as irritation. But before we get to the explanations, we first must understand the concept of stress. Irritability does not have a generally accepted definition. Emotional states, such as irritability, are often descriptive terms people use for self-reported feeling affects. Typically, we associate irritation with low grade feelings of anger. One group of researchers defined it as “a feeling of anger or annoyance, diffuse distress, unpleasantness, and discomfort…” (Weber, Thayer, et al., 2007).
Another paper describes irritability as “a term used to convey feelings of excessive and easily provoked anger, annoyance or impatience.” The authors add, “irritability is commonly defined as a lowered threshold or proneness to anger in response to blocked goal attainment and frustrative situations” (Saatchi, Olshansky, & Fortier, 2023).
Irritability is an emotional state of low-grade anger and aggressiveness typically triggered by an object or event interfering with goal attainment.
Thomas Höge provided this definition “irritation can be understood as a specific psychological reaction to obstacles or an overtaxing regulation within the goal achievement process” (Höge, 2009). Basically, irritation is generally agreed upon to be a low state of negative affect triggered by some object or event perceived as an obstacle to a particular goal. Like other emotional reactions, the original feeling affect starts as an unconscious biological reaction (releasing of hormones into the blood stream) that only intrudes on consciousness if it rises to a sufficient level of arousal.
According to the two factor theory of emotion, once the arousal rises to a high enough level cognitive forces draw from past memories and experiences to label the arousal as a specific emotional state.
Accumulating Stress and Irritability
One common state strongly associated with irritability is stress. Höge defines stress as “a challenge or threat to the individual’s homeostasis, its appraisal depending upon the individual’s perception of the threat of the stressor and the individual resources to cope with it” (2009). In other words, stress occurs when we encounter an element in our environment (inner or outer) that proposes some challenge, requiring adjustment. The level of arousal depends on two things: our perception of the magnitude of the problem and our perception of our ability to manage the required adjustments.
Unfortunately, we rarely encounter life stresses one at time. They overlap and magnify. When you’re under a lot of pressure or dealing with high levels of stress (from one or more elements), it can lead to irritability as a natural response to new stimuli that ordinarily would be easily processed. In psychology, we refer to his as ego depletion.
Biological Predispositions Creating Irritability
While heightened stress levels and irritable reaction is a simple framework for understanding our irritability at certain times, it is woefully incomplete. Life is complex. Multiple systems converge, creating the feeling affects that define our emotional life.
Before we exit the womb, we have biological foundations that largely impact our path of development. We have predispositions and sensitivities that react to experience. We refer to these as state traits. Some of us are extremely sensitive to outside stimulus. A small ordinary event may begin the cascade of a stress response, leading to heightened arousal. This may begin as a small sensitivity, transforming irritation into rage or even depression.
Daniel Amen suggests that one cause of irritation may be low serotonin levels (2015). Irritability may also be associated with a variety of psychological mood disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V-TR) lists mood irritability as a symptom of several disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder.
Gabor Maté, MD, suggests that in disorders such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) there is a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. He explains that “emotionally they take the shape of chronic, low-grade depression and irritability” (2010). The human drive to settle the emotional discomfort may lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as addiction.
Irritation, according to affective neuroscience, suggests that irritation is part of the “RAGE” network. Jaak Panksepp wrote, “RAGE is aroused” when goal seeking is thwarted. He continues, “anger is our response to curtailing of our freedom. This system invigorates aggressive behaviors when animals are irritated or restrained, and also helps animals defend themselves by arousing FEAR in their opponents” (2010).
Furthermore, certain medical conditions and hormonal changes can contribute to irritability. For example, if you’re experiencing hormonal fluctuations during your menstrual cycle or going through menopause, it’s not uncommon to feel more irritable.
Social Interactions and Emotional Patterns
But we can not attribute all instances of irritability to biologically inherited genes. There is an extensive list of examples attributing irritability to learned circumstances. Much of arousal is based on perception and past experience strongly influences perception. Learning accounts for situations where we may be extremely sensitive to interactions with one person but experience little or no irritation from the same behaviors performed by a different person.
Perhaps, past painful experiences involving a specific creates neural connections that new experiences easily arouse. Relationship expert refers to the flipping from a positive perceptual state to a negative perceptual state about a specific individual as negative sentiment override. In negative sentiment override, neutral, or even positive behaviors, may be perceived as negative and thus activate biological markers that we may label as irritation. Our past established emotional patterns that repeat under similar circumstances.
In negative sentiment override, everything our partner (or mom, boss, or neighbor) does, whether good or bad, ignites underlying feeling affects, leading to irritation. And, perhaps, if left unregulated, to dysregulated emotional extremes of aggression or depression.
Sue Johnson suggests that personal sore spots easily activated irritations when poked. She explains that we may have raw spots from our history that small events easily irritate in the present. Our heightened emotional reaction may be “sparked by attempts to deal with the pain of a sore spot, or more likely, sore spots in both of you” (Johnson, 2008). For example, your partner does or says something that pokes a raw spot, the irritation and pain motivates a response that pokes their raw spot. This cycle of hurt quickly forges a pattern that destroys intimacy.
Childhood Neglect and Abuse
Lawrence Heller, trauma specialist, explains that “in neglectful and abusive environments, when lack of adequate response is chronic, anger and aggression cannot be resolved.” He continues, “symptoms of undischarged sympathetic activation develop, leaving children, and later adults in states of high arousal, anxiety, and irritability, prone to temper outbursts, fearfulness, and even panic attacks” Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
Maté explains that trauma memories embed into our brains. He wrote, “the circuits in which its wordless stories are embedded are indelibly a part of my brain” (2010).
Improving Regulation of Irritability
Modern medicine is discovering many of the underlying biological structures contributing to persistent irritation. A professional may effectively treat hair trigger emotional disruptions with a variety of empirically tested medications. If constant irritability is disrupting your life, you should consult with a qualified physician.
The Wellness Basics and Irritability
There are also several behavioral steps we can apply to help soothe emotional irritations. These I refer to as wellness basics. A well balanced life is essential ingredient for successful emotional regulation. We must always start here. The basics include:
Another factor that can impact your mood is diet and nutrition. Consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or consuming too much sugar can cause irritability and mood swings. It’s important to maintain a well-balanced diet to keep your body and mind in harmony.
To combat irritability, it’s important to prioritize self-care. Engaging in stress-reducing activities such as exercise, meditation, or pursuing hobbies can help you relax and improve your mood. Seeking support from loved ones or a therapist can also be beneficial in managing irritability and identifying any underlying causes.
Another popular form of treatment is cognitive therapy. Many therapist see irritation as a secondary emotional response. Leslie Greenberg suggests that clients often “do not feel their core emotions of anger and hurt; instead, they are aware only of their irritability” (2015). Skilled therapist help clients locate the hidden source leading to irritable moods.
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps clients reappraise experience in friendlier terms. Some individuals may find that adjustments to cognitive modes of thought helpful in conquering persistent irritability.
Maté suggests exploring internal bodily processes with compassionate curiosity. Compassionate curiosity is a form of mindfulness, taking note of body states without judgment.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Remember, everyone experiences irritability at some point in their lives. However, if your irritability is interfering with your daily functioning or causing significant distress, it may be worth seeking professional help to address the underlying causes and develop effective coping strategies.
Take care of yourself by attending to the basics, be kind to yourself, and remember that you’re not alone in this journey towards emotional well-being.
Amen, Daniel (2015) Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems. Harmony; Revised, Expanded edition.
Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Höge, Thomas (2009). When work strain transcends psychological boundaries: an inquiry into the relationship between time pressure, irritation, work–family conflict and psychosomatic complaints. Stress and Health, 25(1), 41-51. DOI: 10.1002/smi.1226
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
Maté, Gabor (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.
Panksepp Jaak (2010). Affective neuroscience of the emotional Brain-Mind: evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(4), 533–545. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.4/jpanksepp.
WEBER, C., THAYER, J., RUDAT, M., PERSCHEL, F., BUCHHOLZ, K., & DETER, H. (2007). Emotional irritation before mental stress is associated with enhanced peripheral norepinephrine. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 48(6). DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2007.00612.x