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Irritability and feeling on edge

5-minute read

What is irritability?

Irritability is a state that involves feelings of anger or frustration, of being impatient and quick to get annoyed, especially over small things. People with irritability have a tendency to react with anger to slight provocation. They have a short temper and may snap at people.

When should you see your doctor?

It's common to feel irritable from time to time, but if you feel unusually irritable or irritable all the time or on edge, it is important that you talk to your doctor as it could be a symptom of a mental health condition, like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, or a physical condition.

What symptoms are related to irritability?

Some symptoms and feelings that a person with irritability may experience include:

  • restlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • moodiness — feeling annoyed and grumpy
  • aggression
  • agitation
  • frustration
  • rapid heart rate

What causes irritability?

Irritability can be caused by physical and mental health conditions, including:

Many children go through phases of being irritable. But in some children irritability is constant or excessive, and may be a sign of a health problem such as anxiety or depression.

Irritability is common in young people who have ADHD, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

How is irritability treated?

If there is an underlying health condition causing your irritability, your doctor will recommend treatment that is relevant to your diagnosis. For example, if your irritability is linked to a mental health condition, they may recommend psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or medications, or both.

In addition to treatment for underlying medical conditions, there are self-help strategies you can use to reduce the feeling of irritability.

Self-help for irritability

Here are some things you can do to try to reduce irritability.

Reduce stimulants

Restricting your intake of coffee, tea and caffeinated drinks can help with anxiety and irritability. Smoking and tobacco use can also cause irritability. Alcohol is not a stimulant, but it is a common cause of irritability and should be minimised.

Get enough sleep

Too little sleep or poor quality sleep can cause irritability. Practise good sleep hygiene to give yourself the best chance of good quality sleep.

Identify your triggers

Knowing your triggers or the source of your irritability can help you manage it. Here are some tips to find out what situations affect you.

  1. Keep a diary. Rate your levels of anxiety and irritability on a daily basis for at least 2 weeks, and see if you can find a pattern. This will help you work out if there is a trigger for these feelings.
  2. Once you are aware of your triggers, pay attention them as this can help you manage your irritability.

Practise relaxation techniques

Whenever you recognise the early signs of irritation or tension, you might like to try some relaxation techniques to see if they help improve your mood.

  • Take a walk, go for a swim, or try another type of physical activity.
  • Do some breathing exercises.
  • Listen to music.
  • Watch television.
  • Read a book.
  • Take an exercise class such as yoga or pilates or try doing it yourself at home.
  • Take a relaxing bath or pamper yourself for an hour.
  • Do something creative, like painting or making something.

Relaxation is a skill that you can learn over time. What works for one person may not work for another, but over time you can discover the things that work to help you unwind and relax.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness can create some mental space by focusing your attention on the present. It has been shown to help with symptoms of anxiety disorders and with anger management. It's easy to learn and anyone can practise it.

Resources and support

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you'd like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • MindSpot Clinic (anyone suffering from anxiety or depression) — call 1800 61 44 34.
  • beyondblue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) — online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2022


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