Even the most zenned-out yogi is susceptible to an angry outburst every once and a while. I call them my “Shrek moments”–when your inner ogre shows her green face and you can’t help but want to scream. The subway mysteriously stops underground for 10 minutes, making you late for no good reason at all. The coffee you’d been waiting for all week is undrinkable because it has the wrong kind of milk (and it was your fault). Your computer freezes in the middle of a great writing-binge and you lose your work. Life, as they say, happens.
But what happens when outbursts are no longer bursts, but rather more constant and regular? Feeling angry all the time is a lot like feeling tired: it’s mentally, physically, and emotionally draining, adding stress to your relationships with yourself and with others. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out why you’re wearing your Shrek costume more often than your own skin: we all go through semi-prolonged periods in life–mainly due to transitions like moving, finding a new job, an illness, etc.–that can cause irritability for more than a minute. Sometimes, though, the cause is harder to diagnose and requires peeling back some of your ogre/onion layers (okay, so I really like the movie Shrek . . .) to unearth the eye-stinging cause. Here are some common reasons for irritability that may apply to you, and which recognizing might put you on the road back to your normal, happy self.
By far this is the biggest, and most easily overlooked, reason for snapping spells. Mental and emotional stress puts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode, and yet it’s hard to recognize this if we’re not about be attacked by a bear in the forest. With adrenaline pumping and all of your senses on high alert, your body is extremely responsive and sensitive to any changes around you, even if the trigger is more like a office-neighbor’s sneeze than a grizzly’s growl. In extreme cases, you may suffer from anxiety attacks, which can be physically debilitating and even require medical treatment in the short- or long-term. Regardless of whether your anxiety results in full-blown attacks, taking measures to reduce stress in your life is essential for overall health and balance. It’s easier said than done, I know, so if you’re not already incorporating relaxing activities into your life (meditation, yoga, insert-your-favorite-activity-here), try reducing stress in the moment. Take a deep breath, counting to 10 for each inhale and exhale. Try taking a short walk away from the situation that’s stressed you out. Make a cup of calming tea, like peppermint or chamomile. Apply aromatherapy oils to pressure points on your body, like the wrists, temples, and behind the ear (I keep this handy-dandy roller ball from Origins in my purse–it’s like magic!). For more pervasive and rooted stressors, these techniques will help you no matter what, but a mental health professional might also be a good resource for helping you uncover and heal from prolonged anxiety that’s possibly or partly out of your control.
Low Blood Sugar
Hangry much? Yes, “hanger” is a real thing in that drops in blood sugar cause intense irritability (among other things). When the brain does not get enough insulin, it cannot properly monitor levels of stress hormones in the body: instead of fighting off a grizzly bear, all you can think about (even unconsciously) when you’re hungry is where to get food, and anyone or anything standing in your way can suffer the consequences. Hypoglycemia–defined by a blood sugar level of less than 70 mg/dL–can affect people to varying degrees of regularity and intensity (sometimes a drop in blood sugar can feel like an anxiety attack, or worse a heart attack or stroke, with blurred vision, racing heart, sweating, etc.), and if you think you suffer from this you should talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about your dietary needs–usually this requires eating several small meals a day, though each person is different. For anyone, though, being hangry won’t be alleviated with sugar-sugar, i.e. sweets. Instead, reach for something filled with protein and fiber that won’t cause a blood sugar spike. Great snack ideas to have on hand include nut butter with fresh fruit or veggies (apples and carrots are my faves), whole grain crackers like Wasa, raw nuts and dry fruit (think DYI trail mix–so no M&Ms . . .), or a small smoothie made with almond or hemp milk.
Most of us can’t get through the day without our coffee or tea. Caffeine is so engrained in our society, and in our personal and professional lives, that going without it can amount to a religious sacrifice. But as much as caffeine keeps us awake and functioning, and even can prevent certain neurodegenerative diseases, it can also make us less likable. Too much caffeine can cause high blood pressure and anxiety–thus anger–and too little comes with painful withdrawal symptoms like headaches–again, making us angry. Finding the right amount of caffeine for you can require some trial and error, but once you do your body–and your friends–with thank you.
Not getting enough sleep obviously interferes with your mind and body’s ability to work correctly. Without sleep, our memory, judgment, reaction time, and immunity become sub-standard, and lacking in any of these areas will put you right in the middle of an anger hot-spot. Eight hours of sleep a night is recommended most frequently, but in today’s world that’s hard to come by: so at the minimum, you should aim for six hours every night. Catching up on the weekend is also an overrated myth: sleep’s not like cleaning or Netflix, which can be done in binges at your leisure, but something required each and every day. If you think about losing one hour of sleep every day for a week, that’s seven hours–an entire night’s worth! Instead of convincing yourself to stay up a little later to finish a project, or send one more email, or check one more Facebook post, make work-hard/rest-hard your new motto.
Raise your hand if you’re a woman and an angry outburst was blamed, usually under someone’s (male) breath, on those three most hated letters: PMS. Yes, it’s a frustrating and frankly sexist remark–often making you angrier, as in, ugh I’m allowed to be mad any time of the month!!–but it’s also true that hormones affect our mood. If you know that a certain week is coming up, be prepared for it mentally and physically: treat yourself gently with good nutrition (lowering caffeine, salt, and sugar can help especially; as will magnesium-rich foods like dark greens, nuts, edamame, avocado, bananas, and dark chocolate), exercise, and relaxation. Accept that this is a part of life, and part of what makes you a beautiful, amazing, strong woman. But if PMS becomes severe or interferes with your daily life beyond the typical timeframe, talk to you doctor about treatment options, such as certain birth control or hormone-regulating therapies.
Irritability is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. Realizing what makes you tic can not only help you feel calmer and more in control of daily dramas; it can also give you greater insight into who you are, and help you make peace with the lovable-once-you-get-to-know-him Shrek inside us all.
Do you catch yourself flaring up? How do you deal with anger and irritation?
Related: Are You In Danger of a Burnout?
Photos: Flickr Creative Commons; dylanscandybar.com; Wikimedia Commons/”A small cup of coffee” by Julius Schorzman; http://thehoopla.com.au/getting-verrry-sleepy/; http://www.comicvine.com/forums/off-topic-5/would-anyone-here-date-shrek-1654624/