What Is Irritability? Symptoms, Causes And Treatments

Most people experience occasional irritability and are familiar with its mix of anger, annoyance and short-temperedness. But when an irritable mood becomes chronic and severe, experts say it may signal an underlying condition, such as anxiety or depression, that may require treatment.

Here’s what you should know about irritability, including its causes, symptoms and available treatments.

What Is Irritability?

Irritability is a mood that combines feelings of annoyance, aggravation and anger. People experiencing irritability have a tendency to be impatient and short tempered, quick to react with frustration to even minor obstacles.

“Irritability is a natural human emotion, but if experienced in extremes, there is likely an underlying issue that needs to be treated,” says Abby Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker in Houston. Persistent and disruptive episodes of irritability may be a symptom of a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, or a physical issue such as a traumatic brain injury or substance abuse withdrawal.

Symptoms of Irritability

There are many symptoms of irritability, but no precise definition, says Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a professor at the Graduate School of Education & Psychology at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. People experiencing irritability may notice any of these common signs and symptoms, says Dr. Sultanoff:

  • Restlessness
  • Problems focusing
  • Moodiness, especially feeling annoyed and frustrated
  • Being aggressive
  • Feeling agitated
  • Physiological symptoms like rapid heart rate, tension and being uncomfortable in your skin

What Causes Irritability?

There is no singular trigger for irritability. “The causes may be multifocal, acute or chronic,” says Debra Stultz, M.D., a psychiatrist in Barboursville, West Virginia. Occasional irritability can stem from any number of common disruptions, such as an argument, financial concern or deadline at work, continues Dr. Stultz. Chronic irritability, she notes, may also result from a number of psychological and physiological factors.

Psychological Factors That Can Contribute to Irritability

Irritability can be a symptom of several mental health conditions, but it occurs commonly in people diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Genetic research suggests that, for some people, irritability may even be an inheritable trait.

Psychological causes of irritability may include:

Physiological Factors That Can Contribute to Irritability

Irritability may also result from physical discomfort, pain or distress, says Dr. Sultanoff. “The physical discomfort is generally chronic, which, over time, depletes one’s ability to manage the emotional and physical distress associated with feeling uncomfortable,” he says.

Physiological causes of irritability may include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Medications such as steroids, stimulants, some antidepressants and some antihypertensives
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Overactive or under-active thyroid
  • Substance withdrawal
  • Low blood sugar

Causes of Irritability in Children

Children are often referred for a mental health evaluation after concerns about irritable behavior arise. While irritability may be part of developmentally appropriate tantruming, in some cases where irritability is chronic and severe, it may signal an underlying condition such as depression, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorderADHD or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Some research suggests that irritability may be an early predictor of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder later in life.

How Is Irritability Diagnosed?

Irritability is not considered a mental health condition and therefore cannot be formally diagnosed. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t seek help when they need it. “People who are experiencing irritability can absolutely seek mental health care to manage these feelings, and this is a very common reason why people seek [mental health care],” says Wilson. “Therapy can assist with understanding the root cause of irritability, and [can help people] learn new coping mechanisms for better understanding and managing certain emotions.”

Irritability Treatments

A mental health care provider will first address underlying conditions that may contribute to an individual’s irritability. While there is no singular treatment method for irritability itself, therapy modalities like parent management training (PMT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) have shown promise in easing symptoms in children.

Can I Manage Irritability on My Own?

While there is no formal treatment for alleviating the symptoms of an irritable mood, there are plenty of methods you can employ at home to find relief. “It’s important to find what works best for each individual, and to have a variety of effective coping skills to manage emotions,” says Wilson.

Here are some options for managing irritability at home:

  • Limit caffeine, such as coffee and tea, and stimulants, such as tobacco and cigarettes
  • Limit alcohol
  • Aim for at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep each night
  • Identify what triggers feelings of irritability for you
  • Find what relaxes you, whether it’s exercise, reading, listening to music, etc.

Additionally, Wilson encourages people to practice mindfulness to cope with their symptoms. “When we are able to practice mindfulness, (whether through meditation, movement or observing our breath), we train our minds to come back to the present moment,” she says. “This allows for a healthy processing and expression of emotions, which leads to us being able to release our emotions.”

When to See a Doctor About Irritability

If you’re frequently struggling with severe irritability, or you find these feelings are impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek help from a health care provider. You may have an underlying condition that, with the right treatment, may eventually ease and allow you to return to a calmer, more regulated state.