It’s normal and expected to be irritable sometimes—when we’re overly tired, when our environment is too loud, when we sit in gridlock, or when someone steals our thunder at work. In some instances, like a traffic jam, there’s nothing we can do to change the circumstances—all we can do is consciously modulate our reactions. But there are a number of things we do every day that affect our mood that we can control, and some of them are habits that have become so engrained we may not even be aware of them.
Here are some of the ways you may be unwittingly making yourself more irritable every day, and what to do about it.
Not going outside all day
As a nature lover, it pains me to admit this but: There are days I barely set foot outside except the few short steps to the bus stop, or to pick up my child at daycare. But staying inside all day has a negative effect on mood. The absence of natural light upsets our natural circadian “clock,” Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at University of Colorado, Boulder, told Time. To account for this, we need to get outside every day, weather permitting, ideally for 45 minutes in the morning.
We know you’ve heard this one before, but seriously: Have you eaten breakfast today? What about lunch? Did you eat when you first felt hungry, or did you push it off until the moment those hunger signals became painful? According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, “It is well known that unhealthy eating patterns can cause mood swings. Blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances are often to blame.”
According to WebMD, “When your blood sugar drops, your body tries to bring it up. It pumps out epinephrine (adrenaline), a ‘fight or flight’ hormone that…makes your heart race and your palms sweat. And it can make you feel cranky and anxious.” If it stays there, your body will then produce the “stress hormone” cortisol. “Put adrenaline and cortisol together and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety.”
If you notice you often put off eating during your workday, start setting a timer, enlisting an accountability buddy, or putting reminders in your calendar to snack and eat regularly, before irritability sets in.
Being overly responsive to our phones
According to a study conducted in 2015 by Deloitte, Americans across all age groups checked their phones an average of 46 times per day. (If you listen to Reviews.org, that figure is much higher, at 344 times per day, with 70% of people of Americans checking their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification.) But all these distractions divert our attention, concentration, and focus, leading to feelings of overwhelm.
As psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Jeider told the Huffington Post, “After we have gone down the rabbit hole, we kick ourselves for getting distracted and wasting time, which frustrates us, undermines our focus and productivity, so we seek out a distraction from frustration, and the cycle of mini-frustrations repeats, building on the last.” When putting your phone on “do not disturb” isn’t enough to curb the urge to check every ding and vibration, place your phone in another room.
Reading or watching emotionally draining things before bed
Whether it’s doom-scrolling social media and taking on the the mental shrapnel of the day’s latest depressing news or watching the latest installment of your favorite true crime series, both can take a toll on your mood. While it won’t have the same affect on everyone, for some, the unsettled feeling we get from watching emotionally taxing TV or reading disturbing news stories lingers well into those hours we should be sleeping.
Try limiting news and social media consumption to two or three specific times per day, or instituting a “no news after 6 p.m.” rule (or whatever time would allow several hours for your brain to calm itself down before you sleep).
Drinking too close to bedtime
No, alcohol doesn’t make you sleep better. While it can initially cause a feeling of relaxation and help you fall asleep, it reduces rapid eye moment (REM) sleep, which is the most restorative. “The immediate and short-term impact of alcohol is to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and this effect on the first half of sleep may be partly the reason some people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid,” says Irshaad Ebrahim, the medical director at the London Sleep Centre. “However, this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.”
Because it’s a central nervous system depressant, it can worsen symptoms of depression. If you like to enjoy an evening cocktail, have it just after work rather than drinking close to bedtime.