Depression can cause us to feel increasingly irritable. This can lead to us snapping at people, which is often followed by a wave of guilt. We might not be able to explain our irritability or know what we can do to reduce our snappiness.
What Is Irritability?
When we’re irritable, we tend to become annoyed easily. We’re often over-sensitive both our environment and things that other people say or do. It usually leads to our window of tolerance shrinking; this means that stuff we’ve historically ‘put up with’ feels impossible to deal with. So we snap.
Managing our emotions when irritations are coming in from all angles can be a real struggle. Between a smaller window of tolerance, and cloudy, foggy, depression-brain, it takes far less to ‘set us off’ than we’re used to.
Window Of Tolerance
We can think of our window of tolerance as a container and the things that irritate us as rice that we store in said container.
If our container (window of tolerance) holds 1.5kg of rice, then it would take 1.6kg of rice (irritations) to make it overflow (cause us to snap). But if our container has 1kg of rice in it before we even wake up on a morning, then it would only take 600g for it to overflow.
This demonstrates how, at times when our window of tolerance is smaller (because it already contains some things we’re struggling with), it takes fewer irritations before we snap.
Irritability And Hypersensitivity
We know that depression can affect our senses. Sometimes, it dulls them, sometimes we’re extra-sensitive to the world around us.
Lights can seem brighter, sounds louder, and textures more pronounced. Each of these things can almost be painful.
This can mean that we’re constantly coping with the low-level irritation of sensory input that’s too much for us. It takes up space in our window of tolerance, leaving less space to cope with other things.
Reducing our sensory input can help to increase the space in our window of tolerance again. We could use lamps or fairy lights instead of the main room lights. Sometimes colour-changing lights or lava lamps can be soothing. Headphones or noise-cancelling headphones can reduce the noise around us. Removing any plug-ins, incense or scented candles can reduce smells, as can using the same washing powder and conditioner each time. Using a weighted blanket can be helpful. If we find textures difficult then we could wrap ourselves in the softest of soft blankets, so that’s all we can feel.
Irritability And Frustration
Depression and frustration can go hand in hand. We might have frustrating thoughts like ‘why can’t I just be happy?!’. Our head can be full of fog so thinking or retrieving information ranges from slow to completely impossible. We might feel as though we have words or ideas inside us and we can’t get them out. They’re stuck, we’re stuck, and the whole situation leaves us feeling deflated and frustrated.
Frustration can sometimes come out as anger or irritation, leading us to snap at people even if they’re not the cause of our frustration. It also takes up space in our window of tolerance.
Struggling To Make Sense Of Things
When our head is foggy or buzzy and we can’t make any sense of what we’re thinking or feeling, it can be disorientating and scary. At times like this is can also be hard to make sense of our environment or things that other people are saying or doing.
This can be terrifying. And when we’re scared or frightened, we often lash out. We become preoccupied with untangling the stuff in our head, trying to make sense of it. Our tolerance window is full to the brim with fear and confusion. So anything that comes in on top of that can result in us getting irritated and snapping.
People Trying To Help
Sometimes people try to help us.
They might say things with good intentions but hit on a sensitive subject, misunderstand us, or say something that we don’t want to hear. Irritation can overwhelm us, and we snap.
They might try and help us out with practical things but break one of our ‘rules’ or routines that they didn’t know existed, or put something in the ‘wrong’ place. This can feel scary and out of control, so we snap.
Sometimes when people find out that we’re unwell, they try and help us but in doing so, completely take over, remove all of our control and break a number of our boundaries. This can be immensely frustrating, upsetting, and irritating. Having open and honest conversations about it is tough. But in the long-run, it can lead to a far better relationship.
Our snappiness doesn’t mean that people should avoid us altogether, it just means that we might need to work on communicating our needs and boundaries to them, and they might need to work on being patient, listening (not just hearing) us, and respecting our boundaries.
If we do snap, then rather than leaving it at that, it can be helpful to have a conversation about what’s really going on. It’s likely that the ‘stuff’ filling our window of tolerance is totally removed from the situation and something they said or did just happened to be the thing that tipped us over the edge.
Trying To Cope With Confusion
One way that we often try to make sense of the world is through routines and patterns.
We might eat our meals at the same time each day, always do certain things in the same order or allocate different bits of housework to different days of the week. These things can help us to feel in control. They’re predictable, give us structure, and remove some uncertainty.
If something or someone interrupts one of our routines or patterns, then our stress and irritation levels can shoot up and we might snap at those involved. This isn’t usually a reflection on the person we’re snapping at. They might not even know that they’re breaking one of our routines. But when the world makes absolutely no sense and the scaffolding that we’ve tentatively attempted to build a life on is knocked or interrupted, we can spiral and become irritated and snappy very quickly.
Irritability And Memory Problems
Depression can affect our memory. We often develop ways to manage this either consciously or unconsciously. For example, we might have a ‘home’ for every item we own so that we can always find it. We could be in the habit of writing stuff down, making lists, using a diary, or taking photos of things.
If someone moves an item from its ‘home’ and doesn’t put it back, it can be intensely frustrating. We might not remember them using it, so it could take us ages to find it. This can lead to irritation and snappiness, partly due to the frustration with others for moving the item and partly because we’re frustrated with ourselves for not being able to cope with someone moving an item.
Another thing that happens when our memory is poor, is that we sometimes think that we’ve passed a message on or asked someone something, and haven’t.
This might mean that something doesn’t get done or someone doesn’t turn up at the right place and time. We’re likely to feel annoyed with them, initially. They might then tell us that we’d never told them the things we thought we had. This can cause our annoyance to do a u-turn and face inwards instead. But due to the shame or embarrassment we feel, and because our window of tolerance is already very full, we’re not always able to respond as we might like. So we snap.
Tearfulness often comes with depression. Sometimes we can’t cry despite feeling tearful, sometimes we’ll cry at just about anything.
We might be embarrassed about our tearfulness (though we have no reason to be). This can lead to us snapping at people because we don’t want others to know that we’ve been crying. We push people away because we can’t cope with them being by our side.
Irritability, Guilt And Worthlessness
We can be feeling alone, scared, upset, and fragile, and want nothing more than for someone we love to wrap us in a hug so that we can cry it all out on them. We’re exhausted and need someone to help us carry the weight for a bit.
The problem is, we don’t see ourselves as being worthy of that hug. We feel guilty for ‘wasting people’s time’ if we reach out for support. All of our fear, upset, worthlessness and guilt come out as anger or irritation. We push people away because we don’t feel worthy of their time.
The prospect of facing things that we’ve not done in ages can be absolutely terrifying. Our anxiety can ramp up and we cope with this anxiety by avoiding things altogether.
If someone encourages us to do something we’re scared of then we might snap at them. This snapping can be a conscious or unconscious avoidance technique. We might hope that it makes people back off and stop encouraging us to do the things we’re scared of doing.
Negative Thinking Patterns
Depression often comes with a bunch of negative thinking patterns. We might exaggerate the negatives, minimise the positives, jump to conclusions, catastrophise, and spiral when things go wrong.
Negative thinking patterns can put us in a poor frame of mind and take up some of our tolerance window. With less tolerance, we become more irritable more quickly.
Irritability And Exhaustion
There’s tired, and then there’s depression tired. Every limb aches. Our bloodstream replaced with lead. Everything feels heavy – from our eyelids right down to our little toes. We are absolutely exhausted.
The prolonged stress that depression puts us under leaves us emotionally wrung out. We have absolutely nothing left.
Most people are snappier when tired. We can probably all remember a parent or carer coming home from work and getting at us for something seemingly insignificant. Depression or not, irritability and exhaustion are often linked.
If ‘normal tired’ can make us more irritable, then ‘depression tired’ certainly can.
We Don’t Recognise Ourselves
When we might not recognise or like the snappy, irritable person we’ve become. We might be a really easy-going person normally and can’t figure out where this highly strung, irritated version has come from.
People don’t usually like to be snappy. We want to be able to cope with things changing, surprises, unpredictability, and more… but right now, we can’t.
We often snap at are those closest to us. They might be trying to help us, or just getting on with their lives with absolutely no intention of interfering with ours. We know this, and yet irritation still takes over.
There are things that we can do to manage feelings of irritability.
Basic self-care underpins everything. Everyone feels more grumpy and irritable when hungry so it’s important to try and get a balanced diet. We all feel rubbish when tired, so sticking to a regular sleep schedule can help. Taking prescribed medication, drinking enough fluid, watching our alcohol intake, and trying to get some fresh air each day can all help, too.
Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and practising breathing techniques can help to release some of the tension we feel. We might find that they allow us to feel better able to cope with life’s unpredictabilities, and therefore less irritable.
Talking things over with friends, family, or professionals can help us to unravel some of the messy string in our head. We might find it helpful to keep a journal in some form, too, so that we can track our triggers and responses.
Feeling irritable often stems from a range of things, so it’s not something that we’re going to be able to fix overnight. But with time and support, we can improve things.
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.