Once in a while, I wake up inexplicably cranky. There’s nothing specifically wrong, per se. It’s just that, for whatever reason, everyone around me gets on my nerves. My husband will come into our home office and distract me at the exact moment I start writing effortlessly after struggling with writer’s block. My mom will call with some gossip about a person from high school I haven’t thought about (by choice) in 18 years. A friend will send me 10 photos of their baby that I just don’t feel like looking at (I’m terrible). My dog, it seems, is the only creature I can tolerate being around, and that’s because he’s perfect.
I hate when this happens because I know I’m in the wrong and yet it feels like everyone is hellbent on annoying me. Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, MD, a psychiatrist based in New York City, tells SELF there are lots of reasons why you might suddenly feel so irritated with the people around you—sleep deprivation, for example, can put you on edge, as can feeling stressed out about work or school. Other things that can mess with your mood include physical discomfort—maybe you’re in pain due to a chronic health condition, you have your period, or you’re hangry as hell—drinking alcohol, and skipping exercise for a few days when you’re used to working out daily.
All of these things can influence the amount of cortisol—the primary stress hormone—in your body, Dr. Smalls-Mantey says, and turn you into a real-life Scrooge. Here’s how to deal next time you’re feeling impossibly ornery.
Get familiar with your feelings.
When I’m peeved, the last thing I want to do is reflect on and accept how fundamentally frazzled I am, but this can actually help you perk up a bit, according to Tom McDonagh, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Good Therapy SF in San Francisco. He likens this to mindfulness: “If you observe what you’re feeling and put a label on it—and keep reminding yourself that you’re feeling irritation—you can reduce the intensity of that emotion,” he says. This practice can quiet the emotional part of your brain (the amygdala) and activate the rational part (the prefrontal cortex), he explains.
In fact, when you accept your emotions for what they are and refrain from reacting or judging yourself for having them, even if they seriously suck, you actually suffer from them less, research shows. So, next time you snap at your partner or start crafting a passive-aggressive email to your manager, stop and put a name to your mood. Perhaps it’s irritation, sadness, or anger—whatever it is, identify the feeling and ask yourself how intense it is on a scale of 1 to 10. Your emotion “might spike at first, but eventually it should go down,” Dr. McDonagh says. Once you’re a bit calmer, you’ll be in a better headspace to manage your mood throughout the day.
Don’t assume every interaction is going to be horrible.
When I’m having one of these days, I’m miffed before anyone actually does anything to annoy me: I’ll see a text pop up on my phone and be like, Ugh, this is going to suck! without even seeing what the message is about. Rather than assuming your interactions with people are going to be dreadful, try to flip your POV and consider that they might be tolerable (who knows, they could even be positive!), Dr. Smalls-Mantey suggests.
Research shows that people are pretty bad at predicting how an event (good or bad) will make them feel. And there’s also evidence to suggest that thinking about upcoming interactions (like a meeting with your boss) a little more positively (telling yourself “It’ll be fine.”) can make you feel less grumpy.
If that’s not doing the trick, it can also be helpful to pause and take a moment to recognize that your crankiness won’t last forever. “It’s just a moment in the many hours and years and decades of your life, and you will get through it just like you’ve gotten through many other moments,” Dr. Smalls-Mantey says. This might not instantly make you feel better, but it’s a good reminder that you’re most likely going to emerge from your shitty mood (relatively) unscathed.
If you have to be social, prep some talking points ahead of time.
Another way to get through this testy time: Come up with a game plan that’ll make your hangs less irksome, Dr. Smalls-Mantey recommends. Instead of winging your convos, mentally map out how you want them to play out.
For example, if you have a family gathering that you can’t get out of, whip up specific conversation starters that’ll reduce the odds your relatives will make you want to scream into a towel when you take a bathroom break (not me). Dr. Smalls-Mantey recommends asking “softball” questions—such as whether they saw that bizarre new true-crime documentary, if they’ve read any good books recently, or their take on the NFL-Taylor Swift merger (something everyone has an opinion on).
In other words, choose topics that won’t grind your gears—and ones you might actually be interested in. That way, instead of avoiding your loved ones completely, you can spend some quality time with them (on your own terms) before you head out, says Dr. Smalls-Mantey.
An alternative option: Find a way to help out so you don’t have to partake in awful small talk. Back at the family get-together, if you don’t have it in you to endure an in-depth convo with your aunt about her career, go help out the host. That way, you don’t have to engage with too many people, but you can distract yourself with specific tasks—like, say, cleaning up or serving food—instead of mingling, says Dr. Smalls-Mantey.
Try some deep breathing exercises.
Dr. McDonagh says that irritability, in general, is a result of shifting into fight-or-flight mode—the stress response that occurs when your body perceives some sort of danger or threat. As a result, he says, certain hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, flood your system, and that can temporarily make you tense.
To cope, he suggests taking some deep breaths. If you’re rolling your eyes, fair, but research shows that deep breathing exercises can dramatically reduce your cortisol levels which = less stress = less crankiness = better relationships.
Dr. McDonagh specifically recommends a method some experts call the “physiological sigh”—take two short inhales, followed by one long exhale, then repeat this breathing pattern three to five times. Do this throughout the day (as often as you need) and, eventually, you’ll automatically practice deep breathing whenever you feel irked, he says. “This helps flip your nervous system from the agitated fight-or-flight response to the calming rest-and-digest response,” he adds.
Slow down and rest.
That’s it, that’s the tip. Sleepiness is one of the top reasons people get cranky with others, studies show. “If you’re tired or exhausted, you have to stop and rest,” Dr. Smalls-Mantey says.
If you’ve overextended yourself and are totally zapped, find ways to free up your schedule. Sit out your cousin’s holiday party, cancel the fitness class and go on a quick 10-minute jog instead, or permit yourself to grab takeout instead of spending an hour cooking dinner. “You might have to cut some activities and shorten others,” Dr. Smalls-Mantey adds, but this can help “to get you through that very stressful time.” Once you’ve been able to truly rest and recharge, you should feel less crotchety and ready to be around other people again (without wanting to run away).
Finally, if your irritability is ongoing and really interfering with your life—perhaps you’re frequently flaking out on plans or getting torn apart on performance reviews for being uncooperative—consider getting professional help from a therapist. They can help you uncover the root cause of your crankiness and figure out ways to feel calmer, like adjusting your sleep schedule or learning how to communicate better when you’re fighting with your partner, Dr. Smalls-Mantey says.
In the past, I’ve typically just festered until my agitation spontaneously cleared and I stopped being an emotional menace to my friends and family members (how effective!). But, for the sake of my well-being and theirs, I’m making a pledge: Next time I’ve just about had it with everyone, I’m gonna accept my shitty mood for what it is, remind myself that things probably won’t be as bad as I think they will, and, if all else fails, take a nap. They can’t annoy me if I’m asleep.