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How To Deal With Irritability?

Written by Emma Buck

During this time of lockdown due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our household has experienced varying levels of irritability. On one level this is unsurprising. We have all experienced profound changes to our routines, curbs on our freedoms and are unused to spending so much time together in one space.

Of course in a family there are many different and changing moods and feelings to contend with all the time, but when someone is irritable it seems to infect the whole household, the entire dynamic. It is toxic and gets into everything. It seems to be contagious. If one person is irritable you can bet it won’t be long before at least one other person, if not all, are too.

Irritability is horrible to be around, but it is horrible to experience as well. You feel restless, frustrated and unbalanced. You can feel uncomfortable, as if your very skin doesn’t fit somehow. You feel like you have an impossible itch that you can’t resist scratching, and if anyone gets in your way they will feel your claws. You know you are being unreasonable, but you can’t help it.

So this is the environment that some of us are experiencing right now, to varying degrees, probably depending on things like the number of people and stress levels in the house, and how curtailed their activities are. I’m sure in a family of five with small children crammed into a tiny upstairs flat with no outside space tempers are easily frayed. Maybe in a household where a couple work from home together and go for a run every day things might not be so bad. But whatever your situation, I’m sure during this period at some point or another you will feel some level of irritation.

So it got me wondering what exactly irritation is, and why we experience it. Is it a feeling, or a mood? What purpose does it serve? What causes it, and what can we do about it?

Irritability is defined by the online Psychology Dictionary as “abnormal sensitivity… to a stimulus”. That’s true. An irritable person seems more argumentative, unable to let go of little things that ordinarily wouldn’t seem so bad.

When I’m feeling irritable I can lash out at someone just because they are standing too close to me in the kitchen (irrational!), or because they brought me a cup of tea in the wrong cup (ungrateful!). It might always annoy me that people leave their shoes lying around, but whereas usually I might just ask the offender to put their footwear away, when I’m irritable it could become the start of World War III.

I did a straw poll of my friends to see how they and their families were faring on the irritability scale at this time. The people I asked were all families living with two or three offspring of varying ages from 8 to 25. Most reported raised levels, mostly to do with the extra demands placed on them of managing children while trying to work from home. Children were grouchy and prone to squabbling with their siblings because they were bored. The lack of normal routine means they will not go to bed on time. Parents were worried, tired and stressed, leading to shorter tempers. A common theme among my friends was lack of time to themselves.

We feel irritated when things are out of our control, or not as we want or expect them to be. Hence the wrong cup – I would have chosen a different one; the messy shoes – they should be put away.

And our tolerance for things not being as we would like is lower when we are stressed and exhausted. Or bored. Our patience wears thin and something snaps. We can no longer control our reactions so easily.

Interestingly, when I did my straw poll I discovered something unexpected. Some people actually reported lower levels of irritability in this situation. They had discovered that there were some aspects of lockdown life which suited them. One friend found that being at home with her husband and kids had evened out the household workload, which had always been unbalanced and a source of tension. As a result irritability was at an all time low.

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Another friend found a new calmness in having everyone at home all the time, with the worry about where they all were from one moment to the next and all their comings and goings removed. She hadn’t realised before how stressful she found that.

In these two examples my friends had actually discovered they had more control over family life than usual.

So the solution, it seems, must be twofold. We can find ways to satisfy our need for control, and we can address our own stress levels in order to be more tolerant when things inevitably spiral out of our control.

In order to gain control some household rules or structure may need to be negotiated. Work out what everyone wants and needs – whether it’s some time and space to themselves, or the right cup! – and respect that. Share chores in a way that seems fair. Try to stick to a routine.

In terms of addressing our stress levels in order to be more tolerant of unexpected irritants that cannot be legislated for, trying to understand the cause is the starting point.

If the cause is a lack of time to yourself, then negotiate a couple of hours to have a bath or a solitary stroll. If it is boredom, then use this moment to do something you love but never have time for like cooking an extravagant meal or learning a new skill. If it is the struggle of keeping children entertained while trying to work from home then maybe this is the time to relax your rules on screen time or TV. Schedule in breaks for all of you.

Exercise helps to eliminate the extra adrenaline that builds up as a result of stress and irritability – go for a brisk walk or a run, or find an online workout.

When you work out the cause of your stresses and irritations, or another person’s, that will also enable you to be kind to yourself or them. These are unique times – cut yourself some slack. Compassion, towards ourselves and others, always helps.

And lastly, as always, try to gain some perspective. However bad something seems at any given moment, it is not usually the whole story. There may be some upsides. Find the positives if possible. Are the stresses of this life new, or just different? Try to accept the changes and embrace what they may bring, such as the time with family that you’ve always craved, or the lack of a stressful commute, or distance from that annoying colleague.

For me, some of the upsides include finding the lack of choice in the shops easier, the quiet streets calming. The reduced traffic noise means birdsong is clearer, the dropping pollution levels mean the moon and stars shine brighter in the night sky. Noticing these things, and being thankful for them, definitely makes me feel less stressed, and therefore more tolerant of inevitable irritants. Now pass me that coffee, any old cup will do J

Personal Synthesis is a handy ‘one-stop-shop’ that brings together all the areas that play a vital role in our everyday lives, from self-awareness to intimate relationships. The materials are the result of twenty years of research and have evolved through the experience of running numerous personal development programmes with the general public, young people and university students.

To learn more, please visit the Personal Synthesis materials that cover this and many other topics.

Emma Buck

Emma Buck is a counsellor and personal consultant working with children in primary schools and adults in private practice. This is her second career. After 10 years as a journalist - where she worked for local newspapers, magazines and charities, covering politics and social affairs - Emma found herself looking for a new direction.  It was after a spell of personal counselling that she had her 'a-ha' moment and decided to become a counsellor herself.  She recently completed MSc in Integrative Counselling and Coaching, the only programme of its kind in the world. Emma works from a humanistic and person-centred perspective but integrates other counselling and coaching approaches as necessary, with a particular interest in narrative theory. Her research examined how combining counselling and coaching could help older people.

The Synthesis


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom

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