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Irritability as a Symptom

by Robert L. Smith, PhD

Irritability is defined as being easily annoyed. It can also be called grumpy, tense, uptight and

many other words in popular language. Irritability is also a symptom of unmanaged stress,

burnout and many behavioral health conditions such as PTSD or acute traumatic stress.

Everyone should be aware of an increase in irritability especially firefighters, EMS, medical

professionals and all “helping professionals”.

We can usually see irritability in others but less often in ourselves. Often, we hear that we are

irritable from others. Irritability is often one of the first symptoms that therapists experience

in the consulting room with patients and clients. There are some socially acceptable expressions

of irritability such as frustration. These are often not as stigmatized as inappropriate forms

of anger such as rage. We in the helping professions are the “fixers” of problems for other people.

The helping professions are especially vulnerable due to exposure to chronic traumatic

incidents. Fire and EMS workers are twice the risk for PTS and PTSD. Medical professionals

such as nurses and other hospital workers are also at a higher risk for these types of disorders.

Irritability is also a symptom of anxiety and depressive disorders.

It is important for all of us to pay attention to how we feel and what others tell us. A partner,

close friend or family member might be able to see our irritability before we notice it. We often

don’t see that we are overreacting to small annoyances when we engage fully in life. There are

some common things in our modern world that can exacerbate irritability. Exposure to

negative social media is sometimes called “doom scrolling”. This type of toxicity from social

media is very common. Television and print media such as the news can also be toxic. We are

often exposed to toxic people and situations. This increased dosage of negativity can quickly

become too much. Everyday annoyances are not usually a source of irritability. Minor

annoyances can seem amplified when we are already stressed out. Sleep deprivation, hunger,

low blood sugar, chronic pain and loneliness will often increase irritability. Irritability is part of

the human condition, we all get annoyed sometimes. The easiest way to stop and acknowledge

what we are feeling is to ask the people closest to us. People who are close to us can tell us how

we appear and how we may be presenting to others.

Finally, what do we do when we or others have realized that we are too irritable? Increasing

our self-care can help. This could be exercise, engaging in a hobby or spending time with

loved ones. Taking the opportunity to unplug or getting away from our jobs and hectic lives

can also be beneficial. This can be done by immersing ourselves in a book, movie, game or

weekend away. The way we unplug is different for each one of us. It is essential for us to find

that one thing that helps us escape from everyday life. It is also helpful for us to think about

what brings us joy in our lives. Perhaps a pet, child or something in nature brings us joy. We

also need to identify supportive people and situations as well as toxic people and situations.

More specifically, we need to gravitate toward the supportive and try to avoid a higher dose of

toxic people and situations. These are the foundations of resilience attitudes and behaviors.

These are our first line of defense against excessive irritability, stress and burnout. Resilience

activities and attitudes can lower our risk of most behavioral health such as PTSD and other

medical conditions.


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