The Mighty Logo

Why Does Depression Make Me Feel Irritable?

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

Need to take your mind off what you’re going through? Join the Distract Me group on The Mighty.

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

It might not seem like a big deal at first. So you snapped at your partner for forgetting to unload the dishwasher. It’s not your typical behavior, but you were really stressed. But as the weeks go on, you realize your fuse is getting shorter and shorter and you’re lashing out more and more at the people you love.

In each of the moments you lash out, your anger feels totally justified. But after reflecting on your actions, you realized you wouldn’t have reacted like that normally. Sure you’re probably feeling more emotions than usual, but you’re also plagued by internal questions like, “Why am I reacting so strongly to this?”

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Sometimes when we’re feeling especially irritated and angry, our behavior is actually related to an underlying mental health issue like depression. Though we often hear things like “depression is anger turned inward,” the reality is depression can very much turn outward too. Irritability is a common symptom of depression, and it’s time we talked about it. If you struggle with depression-related irritability, here’s what you need to know.

Why Does Depression Make Me Feel Irritable?

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in activities you would normally enjoy. Though we typically associate depression with sadness, irritability is a common symptom of depression — especially in children and adolescents.

Irritability is when someone experiences reduced control over their temper, often leading to frustrated or angry outbursts. While we all experience irritability at some point or another, folks struggling with depression may notice their patience go down and their tendency to get frustrated go up.

“Symptoms of depression like appetite changes, trouble sleeping to trouble concentrating can contribute to someone’s overall vulnerability to irritability and stress,” Jen Douglas, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, told The Mighty. “The negative thinking patterns we often see in depression such as exaggerating the negative, minimizing the positive and jumping to conclusions can also lead to irritability and frustration with the stressors around us.”

Mighty contributor Bailey Morgan knows what it’s like to struggle with irritability due to depression. In her piece, “6 Signs of Depression We Need to Talk About,” she shared:

I have always noticed that before I get depressed, I always get extremely irritable. This is something not a lot of people want to talk about because they often don’t want people to judge them for having an attitude or short temper. However, it is perfectly OK to have your irritable days.

In addition to depression, irritability is a common symptom of many different health conditions. Some common ones can include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Anxiety
  • Dementia
  • Bipolar disorder (especially as a symptom of mania)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Signs of Depression-Related Irritability

Irritability presents differently for everyone people, but some classic depression-driven irritability behaviors may include:

  • Feeling easily annoyed by “small” things that wouldn’t bother you normally
  • Impatience
  • Lashing out or “snapping” at others
  • Erratic behavior (like aggressive driving or hanging up on someone)
  • Passive-aggressive speech or behavior

Though as a society we often view anger and irritability negatively, it’s important to remember they aren’t “bad.” Emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are. What’s important is how you respond to your emotions. It’s possible to feel anger and not lash out in a way that damages your relationships. 

“Sometimes irritability is an understandable response to a frustrating situation,” Karen Lee Swartz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, told The Mighty. “Sometimes it’s way out of proportion because you’re also anxious or you’re also depressed.”

Though the experience of irritability is common, if you experience persistent, prolonged and unprovoked irritability it can be a red flag that it’s time to get help. For example, if your angry outbursts are getting in the way of your ability to function and maintain strong relationships, there’s a good chance you would benefit from professional intervention.

“We are all different people and all have a different degree of natural irritability… [even] when we’re feeling our best,” Dr. Swartz said. “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 Depression? 

When you’re struggling with any kind of mental health issue, it can be easy to become discouraged. And while your feelings are always valid (depression can be emotionally exhausting!), we want you to know there is help available. Below, we’ve listed four tips for managing irritability related to depression:

1. Seek Professional Support

As with most mental health struggles that feel out of our control, one of the best things you can do for yourself (and your relationships!) is to seek out the help you need. To find a therapist in your area, check out this therapist finder tool.

“Anxiety disorders and depression are both very treatable… Irritability is usually a symptom when the illness is causing you more trouble [than usual], Dr. Swartz said, adding:

With appropriate support and treatment, the illness can get better and your irritability can get back under control. It’s not like you’re ‘broken.’ It’s not like having had irritability when you’re depressed means that you’re irritable for the rest of your life — it just means you’re really irritable when you’re very anxious or very depressed.

In some cases, medication may be useful for treating depression. If you’re curious about whether medication would be a good fit for you, talk to your doctor. Please consult a doctor before starting or stopping any medication.

2. Practice Mindfulness

It’s no secret that mindfulness can help us maintain better mental health. But mindfulness doesn’t just mean meditation — it can simply refer to awareness of your sensations in the present moment.

Being aware of your bodily sensations can really help folks struggling with irritability. For example, you might feel your skin heat up or notice your breathing pick up pace when you’re feeling anxious or irritable. When you start to recognize these sensations, you can take a step back and calm yourself down.

Learning to recognize your emotions can be challenging. If this is a common struggle for you, we encourage you to check out this helpful emotion chart.

3. Ask Your Friends for Support and Accountability

If you’re struggling to identify when your irritability or anger is sensible and when it’s a little over-the-top, you’re not alone. Turn to your trusted loved ones to give you a heads up when you’re getting a little hot-headed.

“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 said, explaining that this gives the person struggling with irritability the opportunity to apologize to the person they hurt, as well as tell their treatment team they’ve been experiencing a resurgence of irritability.

There is no shame in needing help to manage your mental health symptoms. Lean on a mental health professional, as well as loved ones, to help you when things get through.

4. Act According to Your Values

Like most emotions, you can’t really eliminate anger or irritability from your life — but you can learn to manage it and live well with it. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with feeling irritable sometimes, but if your responses to feelings of irritability are hurting your relationships, it might be worth assessing what you can do to curb your reactions.

In the heat of the moment, it can be tempting (and even might feel good!) to act out on your irritable or angry feelings. But a pattern of irritable behavior can do more harm than good in your life. In a calm moment, think about how you would ideally like to react to stressful situations.

“Think about the ‘me’ you want to be,”  Jill Stoddard, Ph.D., author of “Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance, told The Mighty, adding:

In other words, when the guy in front of you at the red light takes an extra few seconds to hit the gas when the light turns green, do you want to be the person who lays on the horn, curses, flips him off or peels out to drive around him? Or do you want to be a person who chooses to act with patience, kindness and compassion?

Even when we aren’t feeling particularly charitable or patient, we can still act charitably and patiently. Feeling irritable doesn’t mean we automatically have to act on those feelings. Though it can be difficult at first, you can choose to act in a way that coincides with the person you want to be.

As you work on your depression recovery, have patience and compassion for yourself. Slip ups are par for the course and expected! The important thing is to keep working toward recovery one day at a time.

Header image via nadia_bormotova/Getty Images

Originally published: May 27, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home