How to Escape the Irritability Trap


by Beth Kurland, Ph.D.

Somewhat in a hurry to get home, I had just finished my errands and began to feel a familiar urgency. Almost immediately, the yellow school bus pulled out right in front of me. “Please turn, please turn so I don’t get stuck behind it,” I thought to myself. As luck would have it, I got stuck behind it – and all fifteen stops that it made along the way.

My first instinct was to get annoyed. I really wanted to get home and start on some of the projects I had set aside the afternoon to work on. Being slowed down by this vehicle and all of its many stops was not what I had bargained for. I found myself going into an automatic, reactive mode of irritation and tension.

However, something caught my eye that interrupted my downward spiral. At the first bus stop, the most adorable little boy and his slightly older brother emerged from their house. The little boy reminded me of my son, oh so many years ago, another lifetime it seemed. So I began to watch with greater curiosity as a young school age girl disembarked from the bus and ran to greet her brothers, sweeping the younger one up in her arms in a surprisingly motherly way for her age.

Suddenly, this journey of the bus ride became an opportunity to watch for moments of connection and reunion, to wonder what these children’s days were like, to marvel at the three-dimensional project one girl proudly balanced in her hands with backpack in tow; to watch another child as his dog excitedly jumped on him with immense affection; and to wonder what caretakers might greet these children at the end of their long day, hoping that they were welcomed with loving hugs.

What could have and would have been a long ride of increasing irritability and stress, became an opportunity to savor a few moments of heart warming tenderness.

This brief experience reminded me that life is filled with many daily inconveniences and annoyances, but that how we handle them can contribute greatly to our stress OR to our well-being. There are more times than I’d like to admit that I get caught in stress, but it is empowering to remember that the choice is there, to respond from a more open-hearted place rather than to react habitually.

Even some of the bigger annoyances can present opportunities to shift from our instinctual fight-or-flight, survival mode to a more open, spacious presence that invites in connection and compassion, for others, and for ourselves.

When I was spiraling in a funk about this plantar fasciitis (heel pain) that was going on for six months already and didn’t seem to resolve, despite my having tried so many things to help it. In the moment of a flare up (of my pain, and also my agitated mood) I suddenly realized that these feet of mine have been supporting me and holding me up my entire life, over half a century! That realization shifted me from a feeling of irritation and anger to one of awe and gratitude.

When I paused to recognize the enormity of what my feet do day in and day out, it allowed me to experience some appreciation for something I typically take for granted. As I experienced this more positive emotion, my self-pity transformed into self-compassion.

So how do we take moments of annoyance and irritation and transform them into something more nourishing? Here are a few suggestions:

– Name what you are feeling. Be kind with yourself. You might recognize “this is a moment of difficulty.” When we name our emotions, it often helps to take the intensity out of them. When we take the time to name our feelings we also create the space to experience greater self-compassion and ease.

– Notice the habitual and often instinctual tendencies to react from an automatic place of stress. When our brain perceives a threat, stress is our evolutionary response. Once you can accept this initial reaction as part of our common humanity, there is an opportunity to pause and recognize that most likely this is not a life-threatening situation. In fact, it might be relatively minor in the grand scheme of your life.

Helping the autonomic nervous system come back into safety with a few minutes of mindful breathing can be immensely helpful. Once the body feels calmer, it is easier to see things from a broader perspective.

Ask yourself what opportunity might be present in this seemingly difficult situation. Experiment with seeing if you might find an opposite, more positive feeling hiding in the situation in which you find yourself. You can even turn this into a game if you like.

For example, if you are stuck on the phone trying to resolve a hassle with your insurance company, you might think about what the other person’s day is like to have to answer phones all day long and deal with disgruntled customers.

This might then present an opportunity for offering a kinder tone or an expression of genuine appreciation. If you are stuck in line, or in traffic, you might look around and notice things you wouldn’t ordinarily notice, such as the person next to you who is also suffering. A moment of compassion or connection or an understanding glance from you to another can help shift your mood. If you have to run an inconvenient errand, perhaps you could turn it into an opportunity to listen to some uplifting music or an inspirational podcast.

Zoom out. Imagine you had a camera lens or binoculars and zoom out so that you see the widest view possible. Take into account all angles and perspectives that don’t involve your immediate point of view.

For example, before reacting when you find your spouse left their dishes in the sink (or something else that annoys you), consider all of the times they have helped you with tasks, and consider the day they have had and their current stress level. Then craft your response from this wider vantage point. Notice the well-being that awaits when you find small ways to shift throughout your day, and challenge yourself to find these opportunities as often as you can. That next annoying detour might just be your opportunity to stumble upon some unexpected treasure.


September 20, 2019

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