Why You’re So Irritated by Everything

A photo of an annoyed woman looking out the window.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

I’m annoyed by fashion masks. I’m annoyed by quarantine overachievers. I’m annoyed by the self-appointed social distancing cops, though not as much as I’m infuriated by anti-social-distancing belligerents. This morning, as I broke down the empty boxes dumped in front of my apartment building by the terrible 22-year-old party monsters that live upstairs, I fantasized about how I might tell them off. On Zoom calls with friends, comparing recent sources of irritation has become a ritual. When I type “M” into my phone this week, it helpfully suggests “motherfuckers.”

I’m calling it: We’ve reached the irritation phase of this pandemic.

Whether you’re anxious to a clinical, diagnosable degree or simply in healthy proportion to the nerve-wracking day-to-day reality of living through a pandemic and economic standstill, constant worry is guaranteed to leave you on edge. How that heightened sense of nervous arousal will present itself might vary depending on who you are, your circumstances, or what day of the week it is. But if you’ve noticed your mood take a recent turn to pissiness, rest assured that you’re not alone.

Emotional “reactiveness” is a good indication of a person’s sense of existential balance. And irritability, in particular, is a hallmark of the anxious mind.

Why your brain is looking for a fight

It might seem odd that anxiety makes us so grumpy, but there’s a reason that “fight” is part of the fight/flight/freeze reaction. From a neuropsychological standpoint, it’s generally accepted that when people reflexively react to a perceived stressor in a way that’s out of proportion to any direct physical threat, the brain’s “primitive” subcortical and limbic regions are doing the heavy lifting of processing that stressor, without much help from the more evolutionarily sophisticated prefrontal cortex. In response to this heightened nervous arousal — aka anxiety — the brain triggers emotional responses, including anger or irritability.

Counterintuitively, this is a mechanism the brain uses to calm itself, the psychologist and author Kathleen Smith told me: “At first thought, conflict doesn’t seem like a great strategy for calming you down,” she wrote in an email. “But it’s actually quite adaptive. If I’m convinced that the other person is annoying, or wrong, and needs to alter their behavior, then I’m not the problem. So I can calm down a little bit when I tell myself that Bob is the one who needs to change his mind, apologize, go to therapy, whatever.”

So that peevish homunculus flipping tables in my brain when I see yet another loaf of sourdough on Instagram is actually trying to… calm me down? Yes, Smith says: “Experiencing anxiety as anger or irritability is one strategy our brain uses to manage the distress. For better or worse, we blame or focus on others’ perceived flaws as a way of calming ourselves down.”

How to quell the irritation

But how does one rein in that judgy, anxiety-fueled reaction? The most obvious solution is to work on addressing your anxiety head-on.

We can mitigate the anxiety of uncertain times by working to accept the unknown, though it’s not exactly the forte of our quirky Homosapien brains. The psychiatrist Jud Brewer, MD, recommends a combination of deep breathing and mindfulness to calm down your nervous system and ground you in the present moment.

Then there’s all the other stuff: Feel your feelings, get as much sleep and exercise as you can, eat well, drink water. Remember that alcohol and other mood-altering substances can make you more vulnerable to emotional ups and downs. And give yourself a breather from doomscrolling the horrors of today’s news.

You can also make a point of practicing kindness in place of lashing out. If you notice yourself on the verge of snapping at someone, take a deep breath and consider a more productive alternative. Talk to someone you trust about what’s on your mind, even if it’s as basic as, “I’m so annoyed by everything today, and it’s kind of bumming me out.”

And keep in mind that a similarly destructive homunculus is rampaging through others’ brains too — so they may not be at their kindest, most tolerant best right now. Before you react: listen. Don’t try to be right all the time. Give people the benefit of the doubt. It might help you both; studies show that acting with compassion can have a direct and positive effect on self-image, relationships with others, and psychological well-being.

Cut yourself some slack, too. You’re allowed to feel weird in this time of great unmooring, and owning it can help. You’ll feel better when you stop feeding your inner grouch.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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