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Coping with irritability: When everything gets on your nerves

Irritability is an emotion we all feel at times, which can be unpleasant in several ways. Emotionally, feeling irritable is not enjoyable. We may feel agitated and even illogical (when we recognise our reaction to a situation is disproportionate to the facts). Physically, irritability can involve increased sensitivity, such as sounds seeming overly loud, or feeling very hot, or feeling fidgety. Irritability is not an emotion that lends itself to sympathy. We may be harsh on ourselves for being cranky over ‘nothing.’ If we’re snappy with others (as is easy to do when irritable), we can get them offside and increase our own frustration.  

So how do you handle it when everyone and everything (even yourself) is getting on your nerves? Here are 3 tips.

Know what triggers your irritability and address those causes

Feeling irritable is often a stand in or surface emotion for bigger problems. Let’s imagine you’ve had a terrible week – you’ve been sleeping poorly, and you’re stressed about finances as you suspect you’re going to be fired (and this has brought up self-esteem issues). You get home and the house feels hot. Your partner has just got home before you but hasn’t opened any windows or put the air conditioner on. You feel excessively frustrated by this and snap at your partner who dismisses you as being in a ‘bad mood’ and distances themselves from you. You’re definitely irritable now, but how did you end up here? In this example the following factors may have contributed.

  1. Feeling overwhelmed and/or repressing emotion
  2. Coping with multiple stressors could have led to feeling overwhelmed which may come out as irritability. This is especially true if we’re keeping everything inside (not telling your partner about your fears, pretending you’re fine)
  3. Physical discomfort – being tired, hungry, uncomfortable (etc.) reduces our ability to regulate emotions, leading us to be more irritable. Feeling overheated can also make you more irritable.
  4. Hormones – Our hormones can influence our mood. Premenstrual syndrome may trigger irritability, and mood can also be affected by high testosterone or cortisol (a hormone that tends to be high when we are chronically stressed).
  5. Stress – stress, especially when chronic, can challenge our ability to regulate emotions and cope with everyday frustrations.

So, what can you do about these factors:

  1. Release emotions – to avoid the build up of emotional tension, try regularly talking about your emotions with someone you trust, or expressing yourself in some other way (such as a diary, drawing about emotions, music, exercise).  
  2. Make yourself comfortable – Taking care of our physical health (sleeping and eating well) may reduce feelings of irritability, as may improving any transient discomfort (e.g., heat, uncomfortable clothing).
  3. Recognise possible hormonal influences. Even just being aware that hormones may be influencing your mood might relieve some distress. If you feel you may have a hormonal imbalance, seek medical advice.
  4. Work on coping techniques for stress – Managing your time, reducing responsibilities, working on procrastinating less, assertiveness, calming strategies etc.


If you recognise that you are irritable, then sharing this with others could be useful in the following ways:

  • Helps others understand your mood (and depersonalise the situation). In our example above, telling your partner that you are feeling irritable would help them depersonalise your frustration.
  • Facilitates help from others. If we let others know when we’re feeling irritable, they are more likely to help us and may be more tolerant if we are cranky. This can reduce the likelihood of pushing people away when we need their help. Whilst we must still be responsible for our actions, irritable or not, letting others know our feelings might help them assist in shifting our mood. In the example, the partner might show empathy and ask how they could help with this mood, such as doing a fun activity together, facilitating a break, or giving a hug.
  • Brings your own awareness towards your mood – When we’re irritable it can be easy to be unreasonable. Explicitly stating that we are in a mood can help us recognise and correct for any expressions of irritability.

It is not only our communication with others about our irritability that matters, but also how we talk to ourselves.

Self-compassion and acceptance

When we feel irritable, we can judge ours harshly. We might feel we have overreacted or are being illogical, and that our feelings do not match the situation at hand. Shaming ourselves for emotions is not pleasant or helpful. While you should manage your behaviour as best you can, feelings are not to be judged or ‘corrected.’

It is natural to feel irritable at times and might be a sign that we need to slow down or give ourselves a break. Many people are empathetic towards others without bestowing this compassion on themselves. Try to talk to yourself like you would to a loved one.

Irritability can be difficult to shift, which can add to further feelings of frustration. Acceptance involves recognising that we are experiencing a difficult situation and/or emotion that cannot be easily changed. Then, rather than struggling against this reality, we accept it. When feeling irritable, this may mean acknowledging the emotion and then knowing it may linger for a while and that this is ok, though not ideal.


In summary, irritability can be a difficult emotion to experience. Being aware of what triggers this emotion and minimising these factors can help. Communicating that we are feeling irritable is another way to manage this feeling. Lastly, it is important to practice self-compassion and acceptance when going through feelings of irritability. If you are struggling with your emotional wellbeing and would like support, contact us on 3857 0074.