Overcoming Irritability – Stage 1: Addressing Physical Causes

Woman with a headache - isolated over a white background

Are you often annoyed or irritated? Do too many little things agitate you, and people grate on your nerves, to the point that you sometimes feel like you’re going to lose it? You’re not alone – in our culture of pushing ourselves too far, it isn’t hard to get irritated. What’s hard is shaking it. One of the best ways of overcoming irritability is by keeping our physical needs in check.

Think of physical discomfort as putting pressure on your physical and emotional coping mechanisms. In science, this pressure is referred to as allostatic load, and has to do with the cost incurred by our bodies to maintain homeostasis – to keep our bodies going under stress. Tolerating mounting discomfort can take a toll on our bodies and our patience – as it should. Discomfort is our body’s signal to our brain that it needs our attention. Amidst the hustle and bustle of our day, with so many competing demands on our attention, we can miss our bodily cues of discomfort. And sometimes the habit of suspending our physical needs (and ignoring them) gets so entrenched that we fail to recognize what it is that we need.

Irritability is often a byproduct of unmet and often ignored physical needs, and can be a signal that our body requires attention. Tuning into your body to scan for physical discomfort or unmet needs can be a powerful tool in understanding what’s going on for you when you are feeling irritable. Chances are good that at least a couple of items below are going on, and with attention could be easily solved.

Here are some common physical stressors that can lead to irritability. Recognizing these areas and keeping them in check can go a long way to coping with irritability when it strikes. You could get to the point that you never feel irritated.

  • Hungry/Thirsty? Irritability tends to occur more often just before mealtime – we probably all know that. But knowing that doesn’t mean you are solving the problem. If you notice that you feel irritable when you’re hungry, but not after your hunger is satiated, be sure to carry along power-snacks or drinks to consume just when you feel a twinge of hunger. This way, you’ll stave off irritability, yet not completely ruin your appetite for the meal. The connection between hunger and flying off the handle is documented. In fact, just recently, a New Yorker article entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Hangry” (Nicolla Twiley, March 10, 2015) summarized research on “the downside of hunger: crankiness”, detailing the effects of the “mental state now popularly known as ‘hangry.'” The colloquialism “hangry” signifies hunger as being a direct cause of anger. Since irritation is a gateway to anger, just being hungry can signal a potential escalation from irritation to anger.
  • Tired? Sleep deprivation can be a key driver of irritability, leaving us feeling constantly on edge, and stress can interfere with getting enough sleep. With so many responsibilities, coupled with the availability of any movie download off the internet, people are just staying up longer hours these days. Be diligent about getting enough hours of nighttime sleep – it’s worth skipping some dishwashing or the latest video download. And if you need a snooze during the day, take it – a 20-minute power nap can revive you so effectively that you won’t feel irritable. 
  • Cold or Hot, uncomfortable clothing? Temperature gradations can wreak havoc on your body, and being uncomfortable is one of the many ways we add to our physical stress load. If you are sensitive to tactile experiences, and or temperature, recognize the resources it requires to ignore your discomfort, and look to give yourself a break whenever you can. Dress in comfortable layers, be prepared for temperature changes, and make sure to be in comfortable clothes when you are at home.
  • Worked out lately? Exercise provides a tension release that people often need to maintain calm. If you’ve gone more than a couple of days without breaking a sweat with at least a 20-minute workout, be aware that you might be risking irritability.
  • Need to go? Why delay that trip to the loo? Go when you need to go, lest you be unable to hold a calm conversation.
  • Got allergies? Reactions to environmental or food allergens are on the rise, and can be uncomfortable – and even dangerous. Lately, awareness of food allergies has become more prevalent in the United States, with people paying more attention to the inflammation that can be caused from allergic reactions. Some people find that by eliminating certain types of foods or ingredients from their diets, they feel calmer all around. For example, reducing or eliminating dairy or gluten can help. If you think food could be an irritant for you, consider working with a nutritionist or try an elimination diet to figure out what foods might be triggering your irritability.
  • Hormonal? It’s trite to say that an agitated woman is menopausal, or “probably just has PMS,” yet hormones can elevate sensitivities and increase irritability. (And it’s not just women – men also are known to have hormonal ebbs and flows, just not during predictable cycles like women.) Irritability has been linked to the hormonal changes of menopause, and also for monthly menstruation cycles. For women though, getting a handle on one’s cycle can be a first step in predicting emotional days, and there are now apps for your smart phone that can help with that, such as Clue. Knowing when you might be more irritable can help you predict and protect yourself from taking on other stressors that will exacerbate it. If you already notice predictable changes in your mood or irritability around your cycle that are problematic, or suspect hormones could be at play in your irritation or mood, see your doctor or other reputable health professional to discuss options for hormonal balancing.

Many causes of irritability can be kept in check simply by taking care of ourselves physically. For most of us, this is easier said than done. Even if it is simple, changing behavior isn’t easy. And if you are already feeling irritable and harried, chances are you won’t be too excited to try something new. So be judicious, be gentle with yourself, and only put on your plate an improvement you know is manageable and will have an impact. Make your first steps as small as they need to be to take them. You might be surprised the positive impact taking care of yourself can make.  As the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is said to have counseled in 600 BCE, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


Note: Irritability can also be caused by cognitive and emotional factors too that will be addressed in the next blog in this series. Physical and emotional causes work in tandem, and are best addressed together whenever possible.


Looking for more help in understanding anxiety? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD