"Why can't I stop screaming at my partner?" "Why do I always feel on edge?" These are common questions posed by our psychotherapy patients. For many, the unending pandemic, political unrest and racial injustice are worsening their mental health. As a result, they're struggling to shake off the gnawing feeling of irritability. And those feelings are taking their toll — some dentists say they're seeing a spike in the number of patients who have started grinding their teeth so ferociously that the enamel fractures.
Unfortunately, the factors that are causing us so much emotional turmoil aren't going away any time soon.
"For some, irritability is more than just a bad mood," says C. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. In a survey of 3,010 Americans the organization conducted in July, Americans reported feeling angrier and more frustrated than they had three months previously. Among the survey respondents, 40 percent reported feeling frustrated (compared to 30 percent in April and May), while 18 percent said they felt angry (up from 12 percent).
Americans are, in other words, getting angrier by the day. Unfortunately, the factors that are causing us so much emotional turmoil aren't going away any time soon. So instead of trying to bury or ignore our emotions, we need to start being a lot more honest about our rage and where it comes from.
Earlier research suggests that irritability is really a cocktail of emotions, such as frustration, annoyance and aggression. This fireball of feelings can trigger explosive outbursts and distort our self-perception. It's not an uncommon emotion: A recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that most of us feel irritable at least one to two times each week. But lessening this kind of agitation starts with understanding why it occurs in the first place.
"People often feel irritable when they're fatigued, sick or under-resourced," says Stan Tatkin, a psychologist who works with couples. And right now, people may be experiencing many of these stressors at once, from overdue bills to the pressures of juggling work and child are. When we are stretched thin, inadequacy grows and our feelings of control and confidence shrink. We can even become resentful when partners and family members don't help out.
When in this vortex of frustration, it's easy to assume that eliminating stressors will fix the problem. But trying to control stress doesn't make irritability disappear, especially when a crisis is out of our control, as COVID-19 is. But as psychotherapists, we know irritability is often a sign that other emotions have been suppressed.
Anger, sadness and joy are what experiential therapists call "core emotions." We also have "inhibitory emotions," such as guilt and shame. When these emotions arise, they block the expression of core emotions.
And when we're not aware of core emotions, we miss the messages they're trying to send us. For instance, if we can't validate our anger, we don't know to set limits and boundaries. Or if we don't realize we're afraid, we can't find ways to feel safe.
When this happens, irritability swells and can lead us to lash out. We may yell at our kids or curse at our partners. This hurtful behavior can in turn ignite self-critical thoughts, such as "Why am I such a bad person?" or "Why can't I keep it together?" Such self-judgments are fueled by shame, which can lead us to think having negative feelings makes us bad somehow.
In fact, neuroscience tells us is that irritability and anger aren't in our conscious control. Think of it this way: Just as fear alerts the body to danger, irritability is a signal of unmet needs and unresolved conflicts we need to address.
For instance, feeling exasperated may mean we need extra sleep or some alone time. If we're feeling hopeless and grief-stricken, we may need to talk to a friend or ask someone in our pandemic pod for a hug.
But instead of reaching out, we often stay silent because we fear burdening others or coming across as weak. Or we shy away from sharing our suffering because another person's pain is worse. When these false narratives guide us, we hold back our sadness, fear and anger, which can lead to depression, anxiety and irritability.
Instead of reaching out, we often stay silent because we fear burdening others or coming across as weak.
So how can we keep irritability from damaging our well-being?
For starters, we can see irritability as a catalyst for positive change by asking ourselves: "What needs to change for me to feel better?" Answering this question can be empowering, because it invites us to search for solutions, which reminds us that change is possible. When we pause to reflect, we're also acknowledging that our emotional experience matters, which is an exercise in self-compassion.
If irritability is upsetting your partnership, you're not alone; many couples struggle to communicate, solve problems and connect right now. However, this stress shouldn't be an excuse for bad behavior, says Tatkin. "Right now, couples need to pivot and work together collaboratively. The relationship shouldn't be harder than life is."
Now more than ever, it's essential that we treat our emotional health with the same care as we treat our physical health. Even as we are confronted by COVID-19's myriad challenges, we can't try to hide or bury our emotions — especially anger and frustration. Instead, we need to speak up when we feel sad, irritated or frightened. It's this type of emotional exercise that can make irritability shrink. Not only that, but when we share what we need, we're in a better position to validate not only our own feelings, but the feelings of our loved ones, too.