It can seem impossible to reign in your irritation once it’s struck. Imagine you’ve had a frustrating day at work. You comfort yourself on the way home with the thought of the dinner you’ve been looking forward to, only to burn it beyond recognition. Add to this an empty pantry, plus hunger pangs and dwindling patience, you could spit nails.
You admit defeat and call it a day by going to bed, only to discover that your neighbour has chosen tonight to begin learning a new tap-dancing routine.
“Irritation is a sign that something is out of your emotional comfort zone; you react to this emotional discomfort,” explains psychologist Marilda Lipp.
Dr Lipp says that there’s a subtle difference between irritation and irritability. “Irritability is a state, and irritation is what grows out of the irritability, the effect, the product. Irritation is a specific reaction to an event or stimulus.”
Dr Lipp further explains that we can all be irritated once in a while, which is normal, but if this is constant in our lives, it might be a mental health problem.
“There’s a mental health condition, more common than most of us imagine, called dysthymia, characterised by constant irritability and mild or moderate depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that three per cent of the world population suffers from this disorder,” adds Dr Lipp.
“There’s a saying: Something I’ve noticed about other people bothers me because it’s mine,” says psychologist Harley Cavalcante Albuquerque.
Dr Albuquerque says this happens because of a concept in psychology known as projection. “When we don’t like someone or when we dislike another’s attitude, this attitude often belongs more to us than to the other person. We see it on somebody else, this thing that we unconsciously carry with us, and that leads to irritation.”
Dr Albuquerque explains that most of us initially don’t realise our projections and, with the help of a mental health professional, we can become aware of this.
“When you stop projecting, that’s exactly the moment when you become aware [of your projection]. You realise that what’s irritating you is more related to you than the other person,” says the expert.
Dr Lipp says that irritation can also be a form of self-protection.
“There’s no doubt that irritability/irritation protects against abuses, offences, excessive demands. It creates a strength that can be used for self-protection. However, it shouldn’t be a frequently used strategy, because it might cause your family and friends to avoid you,” she warns.
Dr Lipp says that constantly irritated people react in an exaggerated way to any frustrating situation, anything that might be viewed as an offence, or if they feel like victims of injustice.
“There’s an emotional distress, people around you might expect an explosive reaction from you at any time. It’s difficult to live with someone chronically irritated and many tend to alienate those people around them. And the social isolation then increases the irritability,” explains Dr Lipp.
If you want to control your irritability and avoid irritation, here are some of Dr Lipp’s strategies:
- Breathe: learn to breathe deeply, relax your muscles and your mind.
- Don’t deny it: accept your irritation and don’t criticise yourself while trying to control it. You deserve praise for trying.
- Think about it: consider what irritates you. Is it possible to avoid it?
- Find out what calms you down: it might be thinking about something good, listening to some music, reading a book or exercising.
- Check your internal dialogue: always try to think positively.
- Get help: if you can’t control your moods by yourself, seek advice from a mental health professional.
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