Shouting at someone who cut in line at the grocery store…losing your temper with your kid even though they just asked for homework help…snapping at your partner because they forgot to do the dishes. Do these scenarios sound all too familiar?
Pent-up anger, frustration, grouchiness: these are all normal reactions to the extraordinary times we’re living through. But why exactly are we experiencing more irritability in the time of COVID-19? And how can we manage these emotions and keep our wrath in check?
Why Are Many of Us Feeling Irritable During the Pandemic?
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re feeling more irritable during the pandemic, you’re not the only one.
Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, told TODAY that the pandemic is “making people irritable or having a shorter fuse or more quick to anger.” Whether you’re cooped up at home, sheltering alone, or you joined your family somewhere, all this uncertainty is killing our ability to plan for the future. And that’s hard to take.
“It’s certainly common to feel irritable when the environment around us shifts in such a dramatic way,” agrees Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC. “We are isolated from our social support network. Our jobs have shifted into an isolated setting or we’ve lost our job altogether. There’s no space between us and loved ones. We have an increased amount of time to get lost in negativity.”
Rice notes that in her work as a therapist, she has been getting “increased reports of irritability and frustration from people in professional and personal settings.” She adds, “Environmental stressors like the pandemic, that we have no control over, are leaving people with an increase in symptoms across the board.”
Reasons to Feel Irritated
Unsurprisingly, there are a huge range of reasons that we might feel more frustrated and irritable at the moment. One of the main causes is the disruption to our regular routines. Spontaneity seems enticing, but the reality is that most of us don’t do well with uncertainty and unpredictability.
Michael Southam-Gerow Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University writes: “As a result [of this unpredictability], many of us are likely to be more irritable, anxious or upset than usual. We may be short-tempered. We may feel panicky and don’t know why. This is all normal. We are in an unprecedented time in our history and we don’t have a lot to draw on from past experiences to guide us.”
And there are other reasons for irritability. Being cooped up at home, doing the same thing every day when you’re used to your independence can be a cause of real frustration. And that’s not to mention the fear and worry that we might lose our jobs or get sick.
Jeremy Tyler is a director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He told TODAY that, “Regardless if you have the virus or not, when you’re in that situation where you feel threatened…We do have a biological wiring to retaliate, fight or flight. Sometimes our loved ones end up being in that line of fire.”
Irritability is a symptom of stress and worry
If you’re losing your temper with your loved ones and then feeling racked with guilt, it’s not that you’re a bad person or just have a mean streak. Turns out, being irritable is a normal side-effect of anxiety and stress. Dr. Gail Saltz explains that, “When you give people high anxiety or even when you give them a lot of sadness and loss, irritability is often a symptom.”
But why does stress and worry cause you to feel so frustrated and often to lash out? Rice explains the root cause of irritability being due to the fact that “the changes brought on by the pandemic have happened so dramatically and quickly. There really hasn’t been that time to adjust to a new normal,” he said. “So letting adversity build up rather than talking about it, normalizing it, and connecting with others in a healthy way, comes out in an unplanned, negative way.”
Irritability May Even Lead to Being Judgmental
Another one of these negative ways that stress and worry can manifest is through judgmentalness. You might have noticed an increase in people making judgements of others’ choices — for instance when and where to wear a mask.
“The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in a magnitude that we have not seen until now. While we do see courage and kindness, we also see people who act out in an aggressive, offensive or inappropriate manner, both in-person and online,” psychologist Sanam Hafeez told TODAY.
Grief and stress look different for everyone and, while it’s terrible to be on the receiving end of a tirade, it does help to know that we’re all going through similar things and to attempt some empathy. Rice says that, “We are grieving what was in order to transform into what is. If we don’t get out our aversive feelings (something we have control over), it’s easier to get lost in what others are doing/not doing (no control here).” Hence lashing out when a friend or loved one doesn’t meet our expectations.
How To Manage Feelings of Irritation
So how can we cope with these difficult emotions of frustration and worry? Talking is key. We need to get things off our chest when we’re feeling irritated; and also try to address the root causes behind these emotions.
We also need to gain some insight, a different perspective, or just be open to learning something new,” advises Rice. “[These are] all things that we benefit from when we reach out to our community.”
Perhaps you have a trusted friend to speak with when you’re feeling irritable, someone hopefully who is a calming influence, or you’d prefer to reach out to a neutral third-party, like a licensed therapist.
It also helps to tell people when you’re feeling a little touchy. Tyler told TODAY: “You need to be overly communicative about what you need. Just saying something like, ‘You know I’m feeling really kind of antsy and I just need 45 minutes to do like a little personal work out’.”
Use Irritability As A Tool To Develop Compassion
Remember that it is normal to feel more irritable than usual right now. Use this knowledge as a way to develop compassion for others — if they’re being judgmental, chances are, they’re as stressed and worried as you are.
“While the way we cope with stress is different from others, stress is a common experience for everyone on the planet,” Rice says. “Anytime there’s a dramatic shift in our environment, we can expect to undergo a certain degree of stress.”
We can avoid taking our irritability out on the people around us by acknowledging our feelings and being open about what we need; maybe that’s a quick break from work, a walk around the block, or a yoga session.
“We are all in this together,” says Rice. “There’s a pretty good chance that there’s something we can learn from others. People teach us things about ourselves and the world if we are willing to listen.” It’s not easy, but all most of us can do is take a breath, know that we’re all feeling a little grumpy these days, and open your ears and heart to others’ experiences.