When Is Irritability a Symptom of a Mental Health Issue?

A group of adults looking annoyed while standing in lineWhen tasked to write this article, I started looking at what, exactly, it means to feel “irked.” I was instantly struck by how many synonyms exist that express this feeling—irritated, frustrated, bothered, inconvenienced, peeved, ticked off, needled, angry, bugged, miffed, put out, ruffled, vexed … and more I’m sure I’ve missed. Then I reflected upon the numerous times I felt annoyed or someone told me about an instance where this feeling was prevalent. And boy is it prevalent! It’s no wonder people are concerned about a possible mental health issue lying beneath all this frustration.

In previous articles, I addressed how chronic anger could be unexpressed sadness or anxiety. Although I won’t go back over that topic here, I do wish to emphasize the importance of looking more closely at your relationship to those emotions. Without a healthy relationship with them, chronic irritation can be the result.

Although the scope of this article precludes me from addressing all the ramifications of mental health, I would like to set the stage so we start from the same position. You may or may not be aware that doctors have linked mouth health (teeth and gums) to heart health. A big indicator of heart disease is an unhygienic mouth. We can use mouth health as a metaphor for mental health. If we never brush our teeth, never floss or use mouthwash, we increase our chance of heart disease. Similarly, if we never “rinse out” our minds and instead keep rancid thoughts percolating in our consciousness, we couldn’t possibly call ourselves mentally healthy. “Mental brushing,” if you’ll go along with the analogy, points us toward cleaning up our perspective about ourselves in the world we inhabit. Put more directly, our expectations make us sick.

Expectation vs. Reality

Expectations come in an almost infinite variety. With the many different preferences and desires that exist in this world, there is an expectation to represent each one. Despite this variety of expectations, we can easily narrow and define expectations as “the way things should be.” The things in this definition refer to our relationships to people (including ourselves), places (including experiences), and things.

Looking more closely at expectations, we can view them as beliefs about how we want reality to be. What’s going on when we’re feeling irritated or irked is our expectation—our belief about how reality “should be”—interacting with the way things actually are. As I put it, we create friction between what we want and what is through our resistance to reality.

Going back to the healthy mouth/healthy mind analogy, notice that when we clutter our minds with rigid expectations, we create an unhealthy internal ecosystem. Feelings of irritation resonate throughout our bodies/minds. When irritation is chronic, we’ve effectively set up a negative feedback loop between our thoughts and our bodies. When we choose to not meet reality head on, forcing our expectations on it instead, we generate considerable force within mind and body. This force often gets stamped with the generic term “stress,” which we then start seeing as coming at us rather than created by us.

The Importance of Acceptance

So what to do here? You can certainly continue what you’ve started, which will surely produce more misery. If you’re tired of doing that, you can begin the process of learning to accept. Acceptance means acknowledging the truth of something. Perhaps your body type isn’t what you want, or you don’t have as much sex as you want, or your job isn’t as fulfilling as you’d like it to be. When we begin to accept reality, we can begin the process of evaluating what it is we can do with it.

At the very core of chronic irritation lies a hotbed of powerlessness. We all too often find ourselves complaining about something rather than looking for what we can do to effect change. Effecting change doesn’t mean manipulation; rather, it means to reclaim your sense of power over your perspectives. Changing our perspective from an irritated, stuck place to one of assertiveness automatically introduces more options. And more options lead to a greater sense of power and accomplishment.

For help with irritability, seek the counsel of a trained therapist.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, Anger Management Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    August 28th, 2014 at 6:22 AM

    Excellent article and advice!

  • sam

    August 28th, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    You also need to look at whether you think that being so irritated is bcoming from within you or if there is someone in your life who only exacerbates that for you. When that is the problem, then you know that you need to start cutting some people out of your life :/

  • Morgan K

    August 28th, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    I always think that those people who seem to be perma irritated must have something else going on in their lives which could be causing all of this. I think that you should take a good hard look at depression and anxiety to make sure that these are not things contributing to the irritation.

  • Katerina

    August 29th, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    This could be something that you don’t even realize is a problem because you have been dealing with it for so long that it has started to feel like the norm for you. Being short and irritable all of the time is not the norm and there are things that you can do to change it all but first you do have to get to the root of what is causing so much of the irritation to begin with. Start thinking about the things that generally set you off and go backwards from there. I think that if you pay enough attention to some of that then eventually you will come to the point where you start to recognize the cause of some of this and once you have that in check then it is easier to start making the changes that you need to make to chart a new course of behavior for yourself.

  • ty

    August 29th, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    my dad is in a constant state of a bad mood but for him I just think that this is his personality- there is no improving on it!

  • Dale H.

    August 30th, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    Sometimes there are these things that go together and it is hard to know when one is causing or caused by the other. The only true way to get to the bottom of that is to work with a professional who can sit down with you and help you take charge of your own life and help you to get a very clear sense of what could be causing what. You could be irritated due to external things in your environment or there could be serious mental health concerns that are leading to that. Again it will be with the help of a great therapist that you will be able to work much of that out.

  • Selma

    August 31st, 2014 at 5:20 AM

    You may be upset about something but you do have to acknowledge it before you can do anything to change it.
    I think that there are many times when we pretend like we don’t know what is causing all of our pain but we really do, we just have this aversion to tackiling it.

  • Mary O'C

    September 3rd, 2014 at 8:36 AM

    Well said Selma. Getting to the root cause is where we can tackle the pain. I like using David Burns tool the downward arrow. The irritable statement then the question. Ifs that’s true what does that say about you, or how does that statement make you feel? Works every time.

  • silpa

    May 19th, 2016 at 11:55 AM

    Nice article. Really helpful.

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