I have almost always been prone to irritability. I could never quite understand where it came from. It would just be there, instantly, as if on 24-hour standby.
Anything could set it off. Looking back to early childhood, I remember setting something on a dresser in my room, only for it to fall back off.
Boom! Irritability sprung, and often, anger lashed out.
As I grew older, fresher situations come to mind, such as the inattentive driver who almost hit our truck. Another near-miss (or would that be “near-hit”? The English language is quite peculiar sometimes). We might have made it through the harrowing situation unharmed this time, but would we be so lucky next time? Roll the bones. And why in the hell couldn’t the driver paid more attention?
Boom! Four-letter words escape my lips.
Anger doesn’t come from nowhere, of course. There’s always a precipitator. Sometimes it’s a progression along a continuum of irritability. Other times the roots are less obvious; I didn’t realize that most of the time, my own irritability often stemmed from a seemingly unusual suspect: anxiety.
Irritability appears to be a Thing–a prevailing theme not only in my life, but in those of many people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. And this seems to hold true no matter what their physical age.
Realizing that I’m on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum has provided me a new set of tools with which to explore the truths in my life, and since then, I’ve now been able to string together more of the connections that make up the webby flowchart of my own irritability.
Here are some of the key elements I’ve identified so far…
Anxiety / Stress:
Anxiety is probably the most significant subtype of my irritability. When the brain registers a potential threat, it launches into “fight or flight” mode. A split-second decision must be made, and it doesn’t take long to realize that I usually can’t flee (the “flight” part), so what’s left?
Except that the “fight or flight” reflex originated millennia ago, when our threats were larger in size, usually living things, and it was acceptable to live true to the “fight or flight” response and all that it entailed. And these days, it’s not considered so acceptable (nor usually even legal) to do so. Our lives are being dictated according to social constructs that actually work contrary to our neurology. Our supposed “socialization” and its accompanying expectations actually work against us.
Except (lots of “except”s here) that our neurology (our brains) don’t just say, “oh, you’re not fighting predators anymore and you live in a society now that adheres to different rules and I could get you in trouble if you follow your instinct? That’s cool, I’ll back off and sleep over here until you need me.”
Yeah…no. Neurophysiology doesn’t work that way.
That stress response has to go somewhere. If you can’t flee and you can’t fight, what happens? Where does that leave us?
In a mess, that’s where. And this mess has nowhere to go, no outlet to take. So it gets pent up. Try as we might to set it aside, its apparent dormancy is deceptive. It only looks like it goes away.
Eventually, we can begin to buzz and shorten. Our resilience thins and our reasoning centers stiffen, becoming less flexible.
Poof! Irritability–especially if this situation is prolonged.
What most people aren’t aware of is the actual basis for the fight-or-flight response: look back at the words “stress”, “stressor”, “threat”, and “predator”. What do they all have in common?
Fear. Not “just” anxiety (not that I’m implying that anxiety isn’t significant, because it is). Fear, however, ups the ante a little; it’s the higher/stronger octave of anxiety.
Sensory Sensitivity / Incompatible Environment:
Another underlying source-theme of irritability is being overwhelmed in any way. Certain sensory stimuli can be extremely grating, piercing, and overwhelming, and thus…irritating. So can regular work stress. Or relationship stress, such as when my partner used to fail to consider my stress levels when suggesting when we run errands, or springing something on me suddenly. It felt very inconsiderate.
Scratchy or ill-fitting clothing will drive me up a tree, as will smells of summer trash dumpsters or perfume, or commercials/adverts on TV, or loud clanging and banging around in the kitchen, especially regarding dishes or cookware in the sink. I also can’t stand careless or semi-violent movements such as slamming doors, even if it wasn’t done in anger.
Histamine / Allergies:
Then there’s an interesting sub-theme that crops up from time to time: histamine. My own histamine-related lab markers are ten times the upper limit of what’s considered normal, and histamine has strong associations with anxiety and irritability, including “tantrums” (link to research abstracts).
This means that when I’m flooded with histamine, that might serve as (at least) a predisposition to irritability. Because high levels of histamine also promote extended wakefulness (insomnia), which I also frequently experience, the lack of sleep itself can also manifest in the form of irritability.
For me, irritability can also arise from frustration. Some examples…
- Having to do the same work over again a second time.
- Having to wait unnecessarily.
- Spending time correcting someone’s sloppy work or mistakes
- Having to make drastic accommodations for someone’s shortcomings (the type that have no excuse, such as driving aggressively or distractedly).
- Being interrupted during periods of deep concentration or work requiring my full attention and intense focus.
- Technology mishaps, such as when my computer momentarily (or not) freezes or my WordPress mobile app crashes near the end of writing a comment that I was particularly proud of. (Technological mishaps are a major-huge source for this type of irritability.)
- An abrupt schedule change or change of plans
- When someone doesn’t follow through with a commitment they’ve made
These examples may actually be anxiety/fear/stress hidden under a thicker cloak. There might simply be a few more dots to connect before I can see the relationship.
I can’t quite tell for sure.
That theory may hold water, though. I can see (or might be able to begin to make out the shadowy outlines of) how some of these examples may arise from anxiety.
The sudden changes in plans or scheduling are the ones to which it’s easiest to make the anxiety connection. My routines and ability to plan/schedule activities in advance reduce the anxiety that continuously builds up due to the very nature of living in a world incompatible with my own constitution. It’s like having to constantly pour water on a small fire; usually the fire can be kept at bay…
…at least, until you run out of water with which to control it. Dismantling my routine or throwing my schedule or previously-laid plans into a state of upheaval is like turning off the fire hose. The fire of the environmentally-based anxiety quickly gets out of control. It’s like pulling the rug out from under me.
The other examples I listed under the “frustration” category, such as the interruption while in the middle of deep focus or enduring someone’s incompetence or having to perform a task twice, etc, however, are less clear to me at the moment.
Maybe they, too, are sprouted from the seeds of anxiety. My brain races so fast and moves so much faster than I can, that perhaps I become impatient because I’m feeling the pressure and stress (again, fear/anxiety-based) of having to keep up.
At this point, some people might (understandably) be wondering, “wouldn’t your life be easier if you just chilled out and relaxed a little? Why the hurry?”
The answers to the above questions are, respectively, 1) yes, I’m sure it would, and 2) I don’t know, other than the fact that my brain insists upon speed and efficiency, and even after nearly 40 years of walking this weird planet, that isn’t something I’ve been able to change and therefore, I’ve long begun to realize that this might very well be part of my core nature–the part of my being that is inherent and might not be able to be altered.
Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by my own brain. I feel like my brain has a legitimate case of hyperactivity, but markedly lacking in the attention deficit area; I can focus just fine–probably too fine.
The “Little Things”:
And then there’s another source of irritability, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have much of an anxiety component, but is pure frustration: The Little Things.
These Little Things are the type of human error or everyday happenstance experienced by anyone and everyone across the globe. Nobody’s perfectly physically coordinated, nor do humans have panoramic vision that enables us to look in all directions at once. To err is human and thus, mistakes and misjudgments happen.
I don’t think it’s just over-reactivity or over-sensitivity on my part, because my partner is starting to see this, too, but it appears that those Little Things happen to me amazingly (and excessively, higher-than-averagely) often. As in, several times an hour, or with practically every physical movement I make. Some of these include:
- My own physical clumsiness – I drop things, knock into things, knock things over, snag things on corners or edges, spill/drip foods/beverages, type words/letters wrong (whether on a desktop, computer, laptop, or mobile–I do all of the above).
- Executive function issues – I get (laptop, mobile phone charger, office desk phone) cords tangled up, etc. I roll over them with my office chair and of course, they get snagged in the chair-wheel assembly. Piles of paper constantly fall off my tables, especially when my cords sweep over them because I wasn’t looking. I forget things – constantly; often, multiple things.
- A pervasive and lifelong streak of bad luck – This is very Murphy’s Law-esque; if tangling my cords up wasn’t irritating enough, they drag across a neatly-stacked pile of papers and of course, it doesn’t stay put–it falls on the floor. And of course, it doesn’t maintain any semblance of order once it hits the floor–it’s all disorganized.
One Little Thing on its own, every so often, isn’t enough to irritate me. If that were the case, would be rather unreasonable. But since it seems to happen constantly (seriously, I could fill a college-lined notebook sheet or two with a single day’s worth of these Little Things), which slows me down, disorganizes (or scratches or breaks) my stuff, and generally causes stress (maybe it’s anxiety-based after all?)
Maybe everything comes back to stress/anxiety/fear in some way, or maybe it doesn’t. I’m still processing and learning, and I haven’t figured everything out yet. I don’t have all the answers or explanations down pat yet. I haven’t even traced the brain-neurology pathways responsible for all this stuff.
But I know I will eventually.
And I’ll let you know when I do, because I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in at least some of this. 😉
This is one of my more popular posts!
So Maybe I Don’t Have My Shizz Together: an Aspie / Autistic Mini-Meltdown ~ November 24, 2016
Triggers of Frustration: The Technology Edition ~ July 27, 2016
Nearing a Meltdown ~ March 22, 2017
Make It Stop ~ March 1, 2017
Sometimes Driving Makes Me Cry ~ December 3, 2016
(Image Credit: Archan Nair)