Overcoming Irritability – Stage 2 Emotional Causes

overcoming irritability

Overcoming irritability and that knee-jerk reaction of grouchiness.

Like a sudden push of a button, our irritability can spring up anytime. But why do we get annoyed at the drop of a hat sometimes or overreact in ways that don’t really make sense? In Stage 1 of “Coping with Irritability,” we looked at how irritability can be attributed to personal physical influences, such as hunger, fatigue, or a need to exercise. In this Stage 2 article on “Coping with Irritability,” we address how emotions can trigger our irritability, and how we can change our reactions so that we are not as irritable. We can learn to recognize, and effectively channel, emotional causes or irritability, ultimately overcoming irritability and allowing ourselves to lead happier everyday lives.

Before I discuss handling irritability from an emotional standpoint, let’s first have in mind three examples of emotional irritability that I come across regularly:

Dave has trouble getting work done when everything around him is affecting his ability to concentrate. Dave’s co-worker, who sits in the cubicle next to him, sniffles constantly. Across from Dave, another co-worker has his music player on louder than Dave would like. Not to mention, the heat in the office is always too high. It’s that same helpless overwhelmed feeling he had when he was growing up, when there was so much going on at home, and no one was available to help with his homework. It was easy for Dave to get irritable in these situations, dreading that he would pay the price for all of his coworkers’ selfishness. 


Charlotte and her husband both work full time, yet Charlotte usually makes the dinner. One evening, Charlotte flew off the handle because she was irritated when her husband didn’t say thank you for the dinner. Even though he usually does say thank you, this time he didn’t. She felt unappreciated, and was really annoyed. It made her feel like she did about how her father would never thank her mother for all she did around the house. She sometimes worries that her marriage might end up the same way as her parents – in divorce – and this needling worry often puts her on edge with her husband.


Jenna’s 6-year-old daughter, Kerry, constantly leaves her dirty clothes on the floor – she never puts them into the hamper like she’s supposed to. Jenna feels burdened by having to follow Kerry around and pick up after her, and is often irritated with Kerry. She just doesn’t understand how Kerry won’t do what she’s told – after all when she was a child, she did was she was told, otherwise her parents would scold her. Jenna has chosen not to scold Kerry, but still is irritated by her daughter not putting her clothes in the hamper?

The above scenarios equated irritability with a past experience of emotional pain that is activated by a current unpleasant situation. When emotional pain from an earlier time is felt, our initial reaction is often irritability often setting us up to have a stronger reaction than we would like.

Why is irritability a common reaction to an emotionally painful scenario? Irritability is a form of anxiety, of our bodies telling us “this situation is overwhelming for me – I can’t handle it and need help.” But if that help – in the form of physical and/or emotional support – isn’t immediately available to combat the pain, irritability often ensues. It’s that initial reaction of Oh no. Not this again. This emotional reaction to our present situation is the same feeling associated with a related past experience, and it happens quickly, and for a reason – to mobilize coping mechanisms learned in earlier situations. The key is that we can learn to not react the same way, enabling us to overcome the irritability that is caused by emotional triggers. We can learn to re-channel our knee-jerk irritability response to something else that helps us.

Three key strategies to understanding irritability’s causes, and thwarting knee jerk reactions:

  • Acknowledge that irritability can represents a false sense of resourcelessness, often exacerbated by ghosts from the past. When we feel irritable, it can be a signal that we feel overwhelmed by life’s demands, and feel afraid that we are unable to meet them. Acknowledging the realities of the present situation, rather than our knee-jerk associations that are often driven by the past, we can channel our irritability into more adaptive coping resources. This conscious thought allows us to take control of our reaction, as well as implement a solution that will help.

For instance, instead of believing he is powerless to change his office environment like he was a child, Dave could conceive new ways to improve his situation, channeling his irritability into action such as asking his coworker to lower his music, requesting maintenance to adjust the heat, using headphones at his desk, or dressing in lighter clothes.

  • Recognize and Detangle buttons…. Getting acquainted with situations that rattle you can pay off in helping you more quickly recognize them when they are pushed. Like with most things, practice makes perfect, so try to make a habit of asking yourself what else might be upsetting you when you find yourself irritated. For instance, is there anything about a frustrating situation that reminds you of a similar and painful situation you’ve experienced in the past? Recognizing our buttons allows us to make the distinction between what is in the present and what is in the past, giving us more control over our ongoing reactions. Remind yourself that a present situation might be frustrating, and similar to an old painful memory, but it is NOT the same, and therefore deserves conscious, thoughtful reaction rather than an automatic reaction that is a vestige of a more vulnerable time or situation.

For example, in asking these questions of herself, Charlotte might realize that her fears about her marriage have more to do with her memories and fears about her parents’ divorce than about her own marriage. In comparing the present situation to her parents’ she would likely recognize that while her husband’s slight was somewhat similar to those of her father, it was not the same. In seeing this distinction, she would likely see other important differences distinguishing her husband’s behavior from that of her father, thus helping her feel less irritated.

  • Learn to regulate expectations… Feeling irritable is often a result of needing a certain ideal in order to feel “okay.” However, that level of “okay” is often unreasonable and therefore unattainable, making the potential for irritability a near constant. By learning to have more reasonable expectations, we set the tone for less irritability. This goes for others as well as ourselves: Having reasonable expectations facilitates our ability to give others a break, as well as ourselves.

In the case of Jenna, she would feel less irritable if she adjusted her expectations of herself with regards to cleaning up after her daughter, and parenting strategies disallowing consequences. Setting age-appropriate expectations of her daughter, and employing age-targeted behavioral techniques will help shape better behavior in her daughter than simply doing it for her – a strategy both exhausts her and disempowers her daughter.

If you feel like you want to feel less irritable, you can! Like with all change, the first place to start is in recognizing with a different perspective what might be going on. Identifying buttons, or other unrealistic expectations that could be driving your irritation, will help you understand more about your experiences, and the not-so-obvious feelings that could be behind them. This broader understanding delivers an increased sense of control that both offsets the sense of emotional powerlessness that often accompanies reactivity, and also mobilizes more adaptive and creative coping strategies to address the root causes of your irritability.


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