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Why are some people irritable all the time? And what can you do?

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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:

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