Why You’re So Irritated by Everything
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…