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Why Does Anxiety Make Me Feel So Irritable?

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Editor's Note

If you’re struggling with self-judgment, check out The Mighty’s No Shame group. It’s a safe space to share how you’re feeling with other people who get it.

Medically reviewed by psychiatrist and Timberline Knolls medical director Johnny Williamson, MD.

Have you ever noticed your frustration flare up when you’re stressed?

Maybe during an especially busy time at work, you found yourself snapping at a coworker for asking a simple question. Maybe while trying to care for a sick relative, you realized you were less than patient with the pharmacist on the phone. Or maybe when you were already running late and a guy cut you off on the freeway, your frustration just stayed with you for the rest of the day. 

It’s common to feel agitated in stressful times. But for folks with anxiety disorders (who often live with heightened stress and alertness), irritability can show up more often and can take a little longer to dissipate. 

Why Does Anxiety Make Me So Irritable?

There are several types of anxiety disorders, ranging from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), to panic disorder, to different phobias. Though these types of anxiety can manifest in different ways, they all involve experiencing intense worry or fear that can get in the way of daily functioning. Common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Feeling on-edge or restless
  • Panic attacks
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating or trembling
  • Avoiding objects or situations that trigger anxiety
  • Irritability

Though we don’t often talk about irritability (an emotional experience leading to agitation and reduced control over our tempers) in the context of anxiety, it’s actually a pretty common symptom. Anxiety can trigger the body’s fight, flight, freeze or fawn response modes even if we’re not actually in danger. So next time you find yourself lashing out in irritability or anger due to anxiety, say hello to your fight response!

“Irritability is a very understandable difficulty for individuals with anxiety,” Jen Douglas, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, told The Mighty, adding:

Anxiety and worry can take up a large portion of our head space if we’re dealing with an anxiety disorder. This type of overthinking, preparing for the worst-case scenario and constant list-making can be really exhausting. And when people are exhausted by those mental to-do lists, they end up feeling depleted, and then they’re more likely to feel irritable.

Anxiety results in more frequent exposure to negative thoughts, feelings and emotions.  Cumulatively, this reduces tolerance of the stresses of everyday life. This loss of tolerance can lead to negative reactions to stress which often include irritability and a further increase in anxiety.

Signs of Anxiety-Related Irritability

Irritability and anger look different for everyone, but according to Jill Stoddard, Ph.D., author of “Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance,” some classic anxiety-driven irritability behaviors can include:

  • Impatience
  • Getting easily annoyed by or overreacting to small things you wouldn’t otherwise feel annoyed by
  • “Snapping” at people
  • Erratic behavior (like weaving in and out of traffic or hanging up on someone)
  • Being passive aggressive

One of the key components of anxiety-related irritability is that it can cause you to react in a way that is disproportionate to what the situation warrants. This is something Mighty contributor Heidi D. wrote about in her piece, “When Anxiety Presents as Anger, Not Fear”: 

Anxiety presents in lots of ways that may not be obvious. Unfortunately for me, most of the time mine presents as anger. What does that mean? It means when I feel anxious on the inside, it manifests itself on the outside as me being pissed off. So when I was a kid and my sister was comforted for being upset, I was scolded for losing my temper. Not that I hold anything against my parents, because I really was a little shit. Back then my anger-anxiety looked like me losing my temper all the time. When I lost a video game, I would throw the controller. When my sister teased me, I would hit her. Tiny triggers were huge triggers, and my level of anger-anxiety varied from moment to moment.

If you can relate to what Heidi shared about “tiny” triggers becoming huge ones, you’re not alone. While anxiety is often the culprit of our short fuses, it’s important to mention irritability is a common symptom of many different health conditions such as dementia, bipolar disorder (especially in times of mania), depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

“We are all different people and all have a different degree of natural irritability… [even] when we’re feeling our best,” Karen Lee Swartz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, told The Mighty. “But when someone has a change, and suddenly they’re more irritable, or they’re much more difficult to deal with, there’s probably something serious going on. Then it’s important to help that person get an evaluation and get whatever help they need.”

How Do I Manage Irritability Due to Anxiety?

When it comes to managing anxiety-related irritability, here’s the good news: No, you’re not a jerk. But here’s some bad news: Anxiety can make you act like one sometimes. 

Thankfully, there’s more good news: Anxiety is highly treatable, and if you struggle with irritability because of anxiety, you’re not alone. When you’re struggling with any kind of mental health issue, it can be easy to become discouraged. While your feelings are valid, it’s important to remember irritability is a symptom many people with anxiety experience and there is help available. Below we’ve listed four tips for managing anxiety-related irritability:

1. Seek Treatment

There is no shame in seeking help for your mental health. If you are struggling with irritability related to your anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support. To find a therapist in your area, check out this handy therapist finder tool. Many therapists offer sliding scale fees based on your income. 

Janina Scarlet, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of “Dark Agents: Violet and the Trial of Trauma,” recommends a type of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for folks struggling with irritability.

“ACT focuses on mindfulness techniques to teach people to notice their painful internal experiences and rather than trying to reject them or fight them, ACT teaches people how to be gentle with these experiences,” she said, adding:

“ACT also focuses on teaching the individual how to take steps toward their own internal core values, such as toward making friends, being engaged in a community, or helping others. Oftentimes, these steps can allow the individual to find the support and the sense of meaning that they need.”

In some cases, treatment may involve taking anxiety medication. Please consult your doctor before starting or stopping any medication. 

2. Pay Attention to Your Physical Sensations

Our bodies often register our feelings before we are consciously aware of them. For example, you might feel sluggish when you’re sad, or you might start sweating when you feel afraid. If you find yourself constantly snapping at loved ones when you’re in a state of anxiety, it could be helpful to learn to identify your body’s anxiety and irritability cues. 

“Start by paying attention to how irritability shows up for you — where do you notice it in your body and how does it feel?” Dr. Stoddard said, adding:

“For me, I feel a column of anxiety and tension that stretches from my throat to the middle of my belly. When that is accompanied by a sense of urgency, I know I’m irritable. Once you become more familiar with your own patterns, you will have a greater ability to choose how to respond when the irritability shows up.”

Does your body get hot when you’re angry? Do you start breathing more quickly when you feel upset? Pay close attention to your physical sensations when you’re getting irritable, and with practice, you may be able to head your feelings off at the pass before you “act out.”

3. Communicate With Family and Friends

Because of the shame people with anxiety often feel, it can be hard to communicate your feelings. Though it might feel difficult at first, try talking about your struggles with important people in your life. As you share and own your emotions, you can work to shape your behaviors around your core values, not your temporary emotional state. 

Frequently, those close to you don’t understand your anxiety and feel provoked by your irritability. Share what helps you when you’re feeling this way. Let them know your feelings aren’t a criticism of them and ask them to do the things that help you emotionally recover quicker. This can go a long way in developing patterns of interacting with others that reduce your anxiety and irritability. 

Sometimes when we’re struggling with irritability in the midst of anxiety, we believe our reactions are perfectly justified, when they are actually a bit too extreme for what a situation warrants. In these times, asking loved ones to weigh in on our reactions can help.

“One thing people can do in their closest relationships is to give their partner or their best friend or their parents permission to say, ‘That was too much,’” Dr. Swartz told The Mighty. She explained this can be helpful for the person struggling with irritability so they can apologize to those they’ve hurt and let their treatment team know they’ve been feeling really irritable.

Recovery from any kind of mental health issue takes time, and perhaps more importantly, it takes help from others. We need other people, and there’s no shame in asking your loved ones to give you a heads up when they see your symptoms flaring up.

4. Take Care of Your Body

A big part of taking care of your mental health means caring for your physical health as well. 

“Regular exercise, sleep and good nutrition are the best ways to reduce vulnerability to irritability,” Dr. Stoddard said. “But irritability will still show up sometimes — when we’re stressed or get sick or are unable to get the sleep and exercise we need.” 

Though we can’t predict when irritability will strike, making lifestyle changes can help us cope with life’s stresses when they do arrive. 

If you’re struggling with irritability, it’s important to show yourself compassion and get yourself the help you need. If you slip up and snap at a loved one, it’s OK. Recovery involves wins and setbacks. Keep moving forward towards healing. You’ve got this.

GettyImages photo via Vaselena

Originally published: May 21, 2020
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