Does it seem like you’re always snapping at your kids or your partner? Do you find yourself wondering, “Why am I so irritable? Have I always been like this?”
Does it seem like no matter what you do, you can’t get yourself under control (and God knows you want to, if not for yourself, at least for your children)? If so, this post is for you.
And I write this post with the deepest empathy. This is not coming from the perfect mother looking down from on high to tell you how screwed up you are and how you’re messing your kids up. Instead, I’m writing as someone in the trenches with you, who has struggled with the exact same issue.
When my husband and I had our first child, life got harder (go figure!). Everything stressed me out. Nothing went like it was supposed to, and everything was more complicated, from getting out the door to go to work to cooking dinner with a small person crying for me.
Over time, I got really snappy with my husband. Sometimes it would be because something minor went wrong earlier in the day and I just couldn’t let it go. Other times it was me feeling like I needed to control everything.
And my husband noticed my agitation. When I was at my worst, he would tell me, “I just feel like you’re angry all the time.”
And ya’ll, that shook me to my core. Was I an “angry” person? Was I a bad wife? A bad mom? I could keep it together when I was at work and I could be pleasant there, so why couldn’t I do the same thing at home? I was terrified that this observation from my husband was a label for a new me.
And part of the problem could have been postpartum hormones (which can affect you for way longer than most medical advice leads you to expect) or low sleep, but that wasn’t all of it.
So, for years, I tried harder. I’d tell myself things like
Don’t get mad.
Why can’t you just stop snapping at him?
My husband is an incredible, supportive man, loving man. We have an egalitarian household where we both take care of the house and the kids, so it’s not like he was shoving all the work on me. What was my deal?
But buckling down didn’t work. If anything, the self-imposed pressure made it even harder for me to “get it together.” I was so stressed out, and I didn’t want to be this way for my kids. I needed an explanation, and I needed a new way to handle life.
The cause of my irritability?
So I started doing some research and getting input from outside sources. I talked to my friend Marcy, who asked me if I felt nervous often. My response?
“Yeah, I’m nervous pretty much all the time. In fact, I’m nervous right now.”
It turns out, I was dealing with some pretty major anxiety. And wouldn’t you know, two of the major symptoms of anxiety are agitation and irritability!
Other symptoms of anxiety
We’ve all heard about anxiety and probably have a stereotype of an anxious person in our head: someone who worries all the time, who is nervous, or maybe even deals with panic attacks.
But a lot of times the symptoms of anxiety are more subtle. For example, if you’re dealing with something like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (where you have what they call globalized anxiety and basically worry about everything, all the time), it might be that you’re so used to the stressed-out background chatter in your brain that you don’t even really think of it was something wrong.
Another common symptom of excessive anxiety? Restlessness and difficulty being still. If you have all that nervous energy pent up, it has to go somewhere. If you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to be sitting and listening, this energy might come out as fidgeting.
Fatigue is another possible indicator of anxiety. Basically, when you deal with chronic anxiety, you’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode all the time. That means your heart rate is up, your muscles are tense, and you’re mentally ready to go at a moment’s notice. No wonder you’re exhausted! Pair this symptom with the sleep problems that also come with anxiety, and it’s easy to see how these tiredness and sleep deprivation can make your anxiety even worse.
What’s the link between my anxiety and being irritable all the time?
When you’re stressed out and/or nervous, your brain chemistry is telling you that you are in the middle of an emergency! So even though whatever is going on isn’t that big a deal, you’re ready to fight. And if there isn’t someone or something there that you need to attack, your kid or your partner is likely to become the target instead.
For example, when my two girls were a toddler and newborn, we lived in a little house where the bedrooms were upstairs. I would get very worried, like unreasonably worried, about going up or down those stairs with both kids. Of course, I’d be holding Bella Bean while guiding General Leia, but I would get really tense about it. If Leia stopped for any reason part of the way down the stairs, I would yell at her to not stop because I was terrified that she would fall or that I would accidentally drop the baby.
Looking back, I know we were fine on the stairs. Now, my youngest is smaller than Leia was at the time, and he goes down the stairs by himself (under my supervision) with no problem. But the point here is that I wasn’t yelling because I was a rage-filled monster. I yelled because of fear.I don't yell at my kids because I am a rage-filled monster. I yell because of fear.
What do I do to get my irritability under control?
Here’s the secret: You can’t “control” irritability. Because let’s be real: If you could, you would have already done it by now.
So instead of “Eight hacks to get your irritability under control today!,” I offer ideas about how to help yourself become less tired and irritable.
And I’ll be straight-up. Most of these are NOT instant results-types of ideas. Some of them take years, even a lifetime, of work. But they’re totally worth it.Minimizing anxiety takes years of work. But the results are totally worth it.
But still, just because something is difficult doesn’t me we shouldn’t try! Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit and build our way up.
1. Get enough sleep.
I know, you’re laughing in maniacal, sleep-deprived way now (or was it just me whose child didn’t let me sleep from like midnight until 2:30 AM?). Trust me, I’m mocking myself along with you.
Being tired all the time is a recipe for anxiety. So even if you have a baby (toddler, whatever…) who doesn’t let you get that solid seven or eight hours of sleep that you want so badly, at least listen to your body well enough to respect when it tells you that it’s tired. If you have to go to bed at eight o’clock, do it. One day, things will be different, and you’ll get to stay up and do whatever it is you like to do at night again.
2. Stay hydrated.
You wouldn’t think that your water intake affected your mood, but it does! A study showed that even mild dehydration (not even enough for your body to tell you that you feel thirsty) can cause changes how hard you perceive a task to be, ability to concentrate, and mood. And what’s worse: the effect is more pronounced for women than for men.
So bottom line: not only will your mood be altered when you’re dehydrated, you’ll feel like it’s harder to deal with your kids and you’ll have a harder time focusing on how to guide them. So drink those two quarts (or pretty much two liters) daily!
3. Go outside.
Our bodies and minds need us to go outside. Even spending twenty minutes in nature can boost your mood!
As a bonus, I’ve found that going outside can help me hit the reset button with my kids. So if you’re at the end of your rope, take them outside (even if you have to bundle them up for winter), let them run around, and take some time for a little stretching or a few deep breaths yourself. You’ll be less stressed, and they’ll run off some of that energy they’ve been using to drive you bonkers.
4. Practice mindfulness.
We have a whole post on mindfulness (with an interview with a clinical psychologist!), so I won’t go very far in depth here, but the idea is that if we can stay grounded in the present, we will be protected from our imagined future that we are afraid of.
One short idea? When you feel yourself getting really keyed up, stop (yes, really), take a deep breath, and feel your feet on the ground beneath you. Really noticing the sensation of support from the earth will ground you (no pun intended) and bring you back into the present.
Another helpful idea? Have a set of empowering reminders in your back pocket that you can tell yourself when you’re getting triggered. I’ve developed a FREE printable of mantra cards designed to help you stay calm during stressful situations. Plus, there’s a reminder card to help you calm down when you can feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. All of the cards are designed to be attractive yet simple, so you can use them as little reminders throughout your home. And these are actually phrases that I tell myself, probably multiple times a day. They really work! Download your copy today!
Another part of mindfulness that none of us really want to hear? That’s right, less screen time! And not just for the kids, but for you too. At least some of the time, if your kids are playing, get down in the floor and play with them. You’ll find that you feel much better and more connected to them when you make this a habit.
And there’s a reason mindfulness is a “practice.” Just like a sport, or a musical instrument, the more you use it, the better you’re going to be at it. And just like any other practice, even if you don’t do it right one time, you always have another opportunity to try again.
But seriously, go check out the mindfulness post for more!
5. Seek professional help.
You really can’t beat anxiety on your own. Much of the problem with anxiety is that it comes from things that you have in your own head. And let’s just say that some of our thoughts are less rational than others (like my worry over my kids going down stairs).
An outside source can help you figure out which thoughts are rational, and which should be replaced with more healthy ideas.
And thought replacement isn’t one of those things that happens overnight. After all, it took years to formulate and repeat those thoughts that don’t serve us, so it makes since that it takes more than one confrontation with them to overcome them.
You might need to see a professional counselor or therapist to get through your problems. If so, there’s no shame in that. In fact, you should be proud of being courageous enough to seek help!
To prove this point, let’s go back to how we compared mindfulness practice to sports or a musical instrument. A player who decides he or she is too “advanced” for help probably won’t get that far. By contrast, even the best baseball player is going to have a coach to help him analyze his swing and to see how he should improve from game-to-game.
One thing to be aware of about going to therapy: You won’t magically feel better after two sessions. In fact, there may be a period where you feel a little worse before things get better, because all the emotional baggage you’ve been carrying around has to come out. So don’t feel discouraged about not instantly getting the results you hope for.
6. Learn strategies to help you more effectively communicate with your kids.
Again, you can’t beat anxiety by yourself. Professional help can be a game-changer, but it is even more effective when combined with help specific to your needs as a parent.
That’s why I’ve created a list of prompts (that I use myself!) to tell you EXACTLY what to say to encourage cooperation from your kids! These prompts are great ways to get your kids to help you without you having to result to yelling and nagging (which I know ramps up my irritability!) Click here to grab your prompts and start having more fun and grace with your kids today!
7. Try journaling!
Journaling definitely has a proven track record to lower stress and anxiety. Don’t want to make a huge commitment that’s just one more task to take on? Try a simple gratitude journal. Every night before bed, simply jot down two or three specific things that you are grateful for. The focus on thankfulness will improve your mood.
8. Get support from others.
Isolation feeds into anxiety for sure. And sometimes, you don’t know anyone “in real life” who is doing this parenting journey in a way compatible to your own beliefs.
That’s why we’ve formed Evidence-Based Parents, a Facebook group for parents interested in connecting to their children while guiding them. We have lots of experienced moms and dads who are there to support you, so let us walk alongside you!
Overcoming irritability stemming from anxiety is possible
But it will take some work, and it won’t happen overnight. But I know you can do it! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments about how I can support you.