What causes irritability?
Irritability is a common emotion. Many factors can cause or contribute to irritability, including life stress, a lack of sleep, low blood sugar levels, and hormonal changes.
Extreme irritability, or feeling irritable for an extended period, can sometimes indicate an underlying condition, such as an infection or diabetes. It may also be a sign of a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.
People may experience the following symptoms along with increased irritability:
- confusion or difficulty concentrating
- excessive sweating
- a rapid heartbeat
- fast or shallow breathing
In this article, we look at what can cause irritability in adults and children and provide tips for managing irritability.
Life stress is one of the major causes of irritability.
Going through a stressful period can make a person feel more irritable than usual.
When someone experiences a stressful life event — which may tie in with work, school, trauma, or grief — they may find it more difficult to manage their emotions and can become overwhelmed. They may feel less tolerant of the people around them.
Feeling overwhelmed by life stress is normal, but prolonged periods of stress can lead to emotional exhaustion. Recognizing the early signs of stress and taking steps to relieve this feeling can help people avoid burnout.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provide useful tips for coping with life stress.
Irritability is more likely to be one of the symptoms of depression in men than in women, and it often occurs alongside aggressive feelings, risk-taking, and substance abuse.
The National Institute of Mental Health state that people may have depression if they experience any of the following symptoms for 2 or more weeks:
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
- loss of interest in once pleasurable activities
- concentration or memory problems
- digestive problems
- sudden changes in appetite or weight
Not everyone experiences every symptom of depression. Symptoms can vary in severity and duration.
Feelings of anxiety often arise in response to stressful situations in life, such as problems at work, preparing for an important exam, or going through significant life changes. This type of anxiety usually goes away once the stressful situation passes.
However, anxiety may linger or worsen over time and can severely affect a person's daily activities, work performance, and personal relationships.
The symptoms of GAD can occur in other types of anxiety disorder and may include:
- a rapid heart rate
- shallow breathing
- muscle tension
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- problems falling asleep or staying asleep
People may also experience panic attacks. A panic attack refers to a period of intense fear that develops with little to no warning and peaks within minutes. The exact triggers vary from person to person, and they may not always be apparent.
People who experience panic attacks may find themselves worrying about when the next attack will occur. They might go out of their way to avoid situations, places, or behaviors that could trigger an attack. Thinking about triggers and panic attacks can make a person feel overwhelmed and irritable.
The term phobia describes an intense fear or aversion to a certain object, person, or situation.
Thinking about or having exposure to the phobic situation or item can make a person feel overwhelmed, panicky, and more irritable than usual.
People who have a phobia disorder may feel intense fear or anxiety about:
- being outside
- social situations
- specific animals, such as dogs or snakes
Lack of sleep
A lack of sleep can cause a person to feel irritable the next day.
Not getting enough sleep, or sleep deprivation, can make a person feel irritable the next day. Children are especially likely to be unusually irritable or emotional if they have not had enough good quality sleep.
If a person feels tired all of the time or finds that sleeping does not make them feel refreshed, they may have a sleep disorder that causes them to wake up regularly at night, such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that one in three adults do not get enough sleep. They recommend that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Teenagers should get 8–10 hours per night, while babies may need up to 16 hours.
Getting enough good quality sleep is important for health. It plays a role in boosting mental performance, concentration, and immune system function, and it also reduces the risk of heart disease and depression.
People can boost their quality of sleep by adopting the following practices to improve their sleep hygiene:
- avoiding eating large meals and drinking caffeine and alcohol before bedtime
- sleeping in a dark, quiet room
- removing electronic devices, such as televisions, computers, and phones from the bedroom
- trying to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day, including at weekends
- getting regular exercise
Low blood sugar
Having low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia, can affect a person's physical and psychological health. Low blood sugar commonly affects people with diabetes as a result of them using insulin and other diabetes medications.
However, people with or without diabetes can experience temporary hypoglycemia if they have not eaten for several hours.
The symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- irritability or nervousness
- difficulty concentrating
- a rapid heartbeat
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Hypoglycemia can also affect a person's sleep. People can experience nightmares and excessive sweating throughout the night.
Hormonal imbalances can cause various physical and psychological symptoms, including irritability. High levels of stress, poor nutrition, and inadequate sleep can influence people's hormones.
Other possible causes of hormonal imbalance include:
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is an example of a common hormonal imbalance that can result in mood swings and irritability.
PMS is very common, with over 90% of people reporting PMS symptoms in the week or fortnight before their period.
Other common symptoms of PMS include:
- low mood
- increased anxiety
- crying easily
- food cravings
- abdominal bloating
- tender or swollen breasts
- constipation or diarrhea
If a person experiences severe irritability, depression, or anxiety in the lead up to their period, they may have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). This condition affects up to 5% of females of childbearing age. A doctor can provide information on treatment options for PMDD.
Irritability in children
Young children go through phases of appearing more or less irritable. These phases are a normal part of development.
Children often seem irritable if they have a viral or bacterial infection. This irritability will usually go away when they feel better.
In other cases, irritability in children and adolescents can indicate a mood or behavior disorder, such as:
- anxiety disorder
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Mood and behavior disorders are relatively common. According to a 2019 study on mood and behavior disorders in children aged 3–17 years:
- 7.4% have a behavior or conduct disorder
- 7.1% have anxiety
- 3.2% have depression
Irritability in older adults
The causes of irritability in older adults are the same as those in younger adults, although there is an increased likelihood of mood swings, depression, and irritability having an association with physical pain, isolation, loneliness, or an underlying medical condition.
The treatment options for irritability vary depending on the underlying cause. Effectively treating the cause will relieve feelings of irritability and other related symptoms.
Medications, such as mood stabilizers and antidepressants, can help treat mood disorders. Professional counseling can help reduce mood-related symptoms, such as fear, worry, and irritability.
Treatments for hormonal imbalances include diet and lifestyle changes as well as hormone therapy.
Hormone therapy may not work for everyone, so it is best to consult a trained healthcare professional before starting hormone supplements.
Ways to manage irritability
A person may be able to manage their irritability through regular exercise.
People can manage their irritability in several different ways. Certain methods will work better for some people than others. It is up to the individual to find which coping mechanisms best suit their personality and lifestyle.
A few general tips for managing irritability include:
- exercising regularly
- eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and low in processed foods
- maintaining a regular sleep schedule
- practicing slow breathing techniques
- practicing meditation
- speaking with trusted friends and family members
- meeting with a mental health practitioner or counselor
- using a journal to keep track of mood changes and triggers
People can experience periods of irritability in response to stressful situations. Persistent irritability may indicate an underlying physical or psychological disorder, such as:
- low blood sugar
- hormonal imbalances
Children may appear irritable as a normal part of development. In other cases, irritability may be due to an infection, mood disorder, or behavior disorder, such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety.
Older adults may also experience frequent periods of irritability if they feel isolated or lonely. Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, can cause changes in a person's mood or personality.
People can speak with a doctor or a trained mental health professional if they feel that they need help managing their irritability.