As a psychologist who’s been in private practice for 25 years, I’ve seen that there are as many kinds of relationship problems as there are humans on this planet.
But one issue that keeps coming up is about irritability — or what to do when a close connection seems to be in a bad mood all the time.
Take this letter from a reader, for example:
Every day, my sister seems to wake up irritable and then stay that way. She has an edge to her voice and responds to friendly questions like, “How was your day?” or “Do you have plans for the weekend?” curtly and with a sharp tone. What can I do?
Indeed, there’s been a lot of irritability experienced these past couple of years, with the pandemic making it a stressful time for all. Irritability is defined as a mood or state in which one has a heightened propensity to respond to frustrations, even small ones, with anger that is excessive given what might be expected in the situation.
Of course, irritability is not abnormal in and of itself. Every one of us can be irritable at times and have irritable moods that may last for hours or even a few days. But when periods of irritability last for months on end and characterize a person’s mood more often than not, it could be associated with an underlying disorder such as clinical depression, anxiety or ADHD. In that case, it should be considered as a broader mental health issue that requires the advice of a mental health professional. Indeed, if the person in your life is being treated for one of these conditions and seems to be chronically irritable, you might consider suggesting they speak with a mental health provider about their mood.
However, regardless of whether a person’s irritability involves an underlying mental condition or not, it can still have a big impact on their quality of life and that of the people around them, and when that is the case it should be addressed.
Irritability impacts us psychologically in a number of ways. It makes us far more sensitive to small frustrations so we have a harder time shrugging them off or moving past them. This can make us distracted since our attention ends up being constantly redirected towards trivial incidents and remarks and away from important tasks or relationships. This constant churning or annoyance in the back of our mind also takes up intellectual resources, leaving us with less mental bandwidth with which to do our jobs and manage our lives.
Why does irritability sometimes linger?
Irritability can be a hard mood to break out of because it often creates a negative feedback loop that is self-reinforcing in ways that can deepen its hold on our state of mind. It works this way:
- Irritability reinforces our negative mood such that we’re much more likely to fixate on anything even mildly upsetting or annoying (we might even do so unconsciously as a way to validate our bad mood).
- Focusing on all these annoyances then fuels our irritability further, which in turn, focuses us even more intently on validating our irritable mood by continuing to scan our environment for external frustrations and overreacting to them.
- At the same time, we are less likely to notice the positive events and experiences that could have otherwise mitigated our frustrated state of mind and improved our mood.
- Indeed, the urge to indulge our irritability and give in to it can feel extremely compelling, and we can become resistant to any efforts from our nearest and dearest to break us out of our mood. This is why, when a close friend or family member suffers from irritability, you may often feel as though you can’t win.
- Any effort to engage with them is likely to garner an impatient, hostile or aggressive response, so you end up just keeping a distance.As a result, your relationship may become strained and distant and the irritable person become isolated, adding to their irritability and their feeling that no one else seems to understand what they’re going through.
Further, negative moods can sometimes be contagious and irritability is one that can be quite obvious to other people, making it harder for them to ignore or overlook and making it more likely for their own mood to be negatively impacted by it. Indeed, irritable bosses often create significant stress in their teams, and irritable household members often create significant stress for the people who are around them most.
So what can you do if someone you care about suffers from chronic irritability?
1: Bring it to their attention
Start by asking them to have a talk, so they know you want to discuss something serious (rather than say, doing it casually as you’re getting ready for work because you want their full attention so they can take your concerns seriously). Tell them you’re concerned because they seem to be in a bad mood more often than not, and they’ve been responding to you as if you’re constantly annoying them.
2. Let them know how their mood has been impacting you
They might be surprised to hear it — in which case they might try on their own to be more mindful going forward. If they seem receptive, the next time they respond irritably, you can simply remind them by saying something like “Please don’t respond with such a sharp edge in your tone, I’m just asking about your day because I care about you.”
If they’re aware they’ve been irritable but they feel their mood is justified because of the external stresses in their life (for example, “You know how hard it’s been at work!”), you can acknowledge their stress but let them know that as you sympathize with what they’re going through, their moods have a big impact on you as well (as your moods do on them). Then suggest you discuss ways to cope with their stress that might reduce their irritability, which would be best for them as well as for you.
3. Ask them to consider trying one of the following techniques that have been shown to lower irritability
Gratitude exercise: Spend 10 minutes each morning journaling about three things for which they’re grateful and why—what that thing means to them and why it makes them feel thankful
Mindfulness meditation: Focus on breathing, feeling the air flow in and out of your lungs—and when thoughts enter your mind—which they will—label them factually and without any judgment or emotionality (e.g., ‘A worry about work’ or ‘frustration with a friend’) and refocus on your breathing. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to lower emotional reactivity to upsetting and distressing thoughts.
Reframing: Also known as cognitive reappraisal, reframing is a form of emotional regulation in which one changes one’s perspective/story to take the sting out of an annoying/upsetting/frustrating situation. Reframing is an effective emotional regulation technique that’s been shown to lower emotional distress and irritability. By helping the person explore why they’re irritable and how they might reframe their story, you’re not only demonstrating concern and compassion for them, you could help them find a silver lining that can reframe their situation more positively.
What’s more, reframing, mindfulness and gratitude are techniques from which you too can benefit as they can help mitigate your own elevated stress and irritability when they’re affected by the moods of the people around you. As such, you could consider suggesting to the irritable person in your life that the two of you practice them together. Doing this may also make them feel less defensive and more open to considering your request.
4. Acknowledge that you’re asking them to do something that isn’t so easy
Irritability can feel very compelling and justified, and the urge to just lash out at someone can be strong. As such, let them know that if they were willing to work on minimizing the severity and or frequency of their irritability you would be very appreciative and be truly grateful for the work they would have to put forth to do so.
However, if you’ve attempted to address these issues with the other person and they are either uninterested or incapable of adopting them, you might consider, when possible, limiting your contact with them so you’re less impacted by their irritability. Moods come and go and even underlying conditions tend to manifest in cycles, so it might be wise to take a step back until the person is in a better place emotionally.
That said, by addressing the issue with the person directly, the hope is that they’ll take steps to improve their mood and irritability and that the next time you feel yourself becoming irritable, you can take these steps yourself before your partner or friend sits you down for a talk about your bad mood.
To read his “Dear Guy” columns, go here. Watch his TEDxLinnaeusUniversity Talk now: