Research shows our brains are wired to focus on the negative, and there’s certainly a lot of it in the world right now, giving us plenty of options to ruminate over.
Ironically, some of the coping mechanisms we use to distract our mind from these thoughts are often making our mood worse. We end up compounding the problem we subconsciously were trying to solve. Instead of leaning into these mindless behaviors, “we have to think about how to replace them with a higher-value coping skill,” said Susan Zinn, a psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California.
Here are some of the most common ways you might be exacerbating your own irritability through poor coping skills, and what to try instead.
Not eating when you’re hungry
Hanger is a real thing. When blood sugar is low, it triggers a cascade of hormones including cortisol, which is associated with stress.
Heather Kent, an author, psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist in Canada, said that shortage of energy makes us feel “irritable, tired, sluggish and annoyed. … We have less tolerance for things.” She added that it may impact your ability to concentrate and ultimately perform, which can add to the frustration.
Try setting an alarm for every few hours to check in with yourself on your hunger level, or scheduling meal breaks into your day like meetings.
Binge-watching emotionally-taxing TV at night
Right when you are supposed to be calming your mind and body for bedtime, you turn on your favorite bingeworthy crime series. While these shows are not bothersome for some of us, for others they can cause an irritated and even depressed mood, long after we finish an episode. This can be especially problematic at night, causing disrupted sleep.
“Staying up and being distracted by TV causes us to stay up later, and then we’re like, ‘Oh, crap, I have to get up in five hours,’” Kent said. “That happens way more frequently than I’d like to see. … If we are sleeping poorly, the next day you are feeling irritable.”
To solve this, intentionally choose more calming or neutral topics for shows in the evening, and save the high-emotion options for a rainy Saturday to preserve your sleep ― and your mood.
Staying inside all day
It can be easy to let the daylight hours go by ― especially when you’re working. If you are getting to the end of the day, or multiple days, and haven’t even stepped foot outside, this mindless habit might be causing irritation.
Zinn suggested a research-backed tool to improve your morning routine and reduce irritation levels: Within 30 minutes of waking up, go outside for a walk, getting direct exposure to natural light.
Additionally, she suggested pushing your morning cup of coffee back a few hours rather than drinking it first thing. Since caffeine is a stimulant, you might be causing jitters or stress right off the bat instead of allowing yourself some calm. Instead, get out of bed, get some vitamin D, get your day started, then get your coffee.
Checking your phone notifications when they come through
Zinn said people check their phones close to 50 times per day on average, adding that it can take a person around 20 minutes to fully regain focus on a task after looking at their device.
This can lead to time management problems and feeling overwhelmed, which then leads to overall irritability, said Timothy Jeider, a psychiatrist at Nevada Mental Health.
“After we have gone down the rabbit hole, we kick ourselves for getting distracted and wasting time, which frustrates us, undermines our focus and productivity, so we seek out a distraction from frustration, and the cycle of mini-frustrations repeats, building on the last,” he said.
The easiest solution ― and also the toughest ― is to move your phone to another room, Zinn said. You can also put your phone on “do not disturb” mode or remove your notifications from your lock screen.
Doomscrolling is inevitable with social media at this point. All the misinformation, conspiracy theories and pandemic-related warnings in the news can take a huge toll on our mental well-being, Kent said.
“All of it leads to increased feelings of irritability, aggression and anger, and we tend to be really addicted to that news cycle because of the pandemic,” she said.
Emotionally draining news might not come just from your phone, but also from the television or radio running in the background. Even Instagram stories or TikTok can bombard us with it.
To break the negative effects, limit news consumption to once or twice per day. The best approach, according to Kent, is to try to consume news in the morning and evening rather than throughout the day.