COVID-19 began to hold our everyday lives hostage early in 2020 and we’re still coping with the lockdown restrictions today, with no firm end in sight.
As a result of all this upheaval, last year saw many of us lurch through a series of collective emotions - grief, frustration, fear, sadness and anger.
It also led to us feeling another, less expected, mood - irritability.
Every day irritations we might normally brush off are suddenly making us feel like we’re going to blow: from the car in front not moving off quickly enough leaving you get stuck at a red light, to the kids not understanding that grown-ups can’t do the bus stop method for multiplication.
Turns out there’s a scientific explanation for our current tetchiness and it’s all to do with stress and uncertainty.
“While we do need a certain level of stress in our lives, if we face continuous challenge without relief and a degree of certainty, stress can build up and become negative,” explains Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health.
“Uncertainty can be mentally incredibly challenging to deal with.
“We like to think that we have control over the events of our lives, so holding our nerve when faced with the fear of the unknown can be extremely difficult.”
According to Street, a global pandemic takes us into uncharted territory, which means we cannot flick though our manuals of past experience to ascertain how best to act, and that manifests in us feeling somewhat irritable.
“When we don’t know what to expect, we start to imagine what might happen and try to be as prepared as possible,” he explains.
“Our bodies respond by flooding us with chemicals to help us deal with the threat activating a powerful fight or flight response.
“This leaves us feeling vulnerable and further hijacks the rational thinking/problem solving part of the brain, which makes effective planning much more difficult.”
The fact that we have fewer ways to blow off steam right now is also contributing to our irritability.
“Many people are juggling so many commitments - such as working from home and home schooling - but without having the same opportunities to recharge like they used to,” explains Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, psychologist, author and therapist.
“Previously, one might have met friends for coffee or gone to an exercise class to blow off steam, but these are no longer options and so the frustration lingers.”
It’s possible our increasing reliance on technology may have a part to play in making us feel tetchy too.
“We know from research that people who spend lots of time looking at screens are less patient, have a shorter fuse and tend to show aggressive behaviour,” says Dr Ben-Ari.
So what’s going on in our minds when we feel like we’re going to lose it?
“When we are stressed or anxious, by default we show up with our defence mechanism,” Dr Ben-Ari explains. “This mechanism is the instinctive behaviour we display when our brain perceives there to be a threat or a danger.”
Dr Ben-Ari says for many people, this could manifest in them raising their voice or intensifying their words, but for others it could mean disconnecting and going inwards.
“Generally our brains can sustain 20 minutes of stress - any more than that is burning more energy than we have, leaving us feeling tired and irritable,” he explains.
“It leads to a sense of being overwhelmed, worried and having negative inner thoughts and perceptions.
“If we are running on empty, we are more likely to react in a defensive way, which creates more stress both for ourselves and others. It can create anger and depression, and everything inbetween.”
Watch: How trees could have a positive impact on mental health.
The best thing we can do to manage our irritability is to try and balance our emotions and manage any symptoms of anxiety.
Making small changes can make a big difference, according to Street, but there isn’t one cure that fits all, so you should try a few of the suggestions below to see what works best for you.
How to find your inner calm when you’re feeling ready to blow
Be kind to yourself
Practice talking to yourself with understanding and compassion. “Speak to yourself as you would to a friend to reassure them, or the way an encouraging coach would, rather than a critic,” says Street.
Don’t accept your thoughts as facts
Just because something feels scary, it doesn’t always mean something bad will happen. “When you notice a change in your mood, ask yourself, ‘What was I thinking about just before that?’, ‘Was the thought helpful or unhelpful?’” says Street.
“It can help to imagine a friend saying your thought out loud – if it’s unhelpful, what would you say to them to challenge their thinking?”
Put pen to paper
According to Street putting your emotions into words can also help you get through stressful events. “Don’t worry about crafting a literary masterpiece. Instead, try writing about your feelings for a few minutes nonstop,” he says. “This can help you organise your thoughts and better cope with your emotions.”
Exercise regularly and eat healthily
Sure, it doesn’t always feel tempting to haul ourselves off the sofa to work out, but according to Street physical activity releases anxiety-reducing chemicals, while also acting as a healthy distraction.
Equally, Street says good nutrition has a positive impact on your mood, while also boosting your energy and immunity.
Open up about your feelings
If you are living with a partner or your family, try and plan ahead and communicate your needs and expectations, suggests Dr Ben-Ari.
“Discuss what is going on for you, what is working well, where things can be better, and how you can support each other,” he says.
“Normalise yours and your close ones’ feelings, be kind and forgiving, and take things one day at a time.
“Try to create a sense of routine and share the responsibilities with those that you live with, so that you are not overwhelmed.”
Carve out moments of joy
“Whether it’s catching up virtually with a friend or cooking your favourite dinner. Take a walk in the park, enjoy a lazy morning or simply bask in the joy of a great coffee,” says Dr Ben-Ari.
Try yoga, breathing exercises, being in nature or meditation - whatever clears your mind of noise and allows you to be present in the moment.
Also practise being comfortable with the unknown and learn to sit with this feeling of uncertainly or lack of time scale.
Cut yourself some slack
Remember that you can only do your best. “Lower your expectations and strive for progress, not perfection,” adds Dr Ben-Ari.
Seek further help
If you continue to show signs of distress, Street suggests looking towards further emotional support. “There are several online resources and therapies to provide people with the tools to improve their emotional wellbeing,” he says.
Nuffield Health has also recently launched free emotional wellbeing classes, for more info visit Nuffield Health 24/7.
You can also talk to your GP if you are struggling with your mental health.