Stress and Irritability: How to Live in Your Values When You’re at Your Limit

Have you noticed an increase in feelings of irritability and agitation?

You’re not alone. Irritability tends to accompany stress and anxiety.

Irritability is one of those sneaky symptoms of anxiety and stress. On the outside, I’m not voicing the undercurrent of fear, worst case scenario planning, and inadequacy I’m feeling. My family sees me getting things done, maybe a little zoned out, and then…snap… my tone is tense, impatient, and annoyed. About two weeks into the COVID shelter in place orders it was becoming clear that I was holding in more than I could manage well, and unfortunately, it’s the people I love the most that are around to experience my short fuse. Maybe you can relate.

I had a moment of clarity after a tense conversation on a family walk when my husband asked, “Are you a lot more upset on the inside? …Because I’m not sure what’s going on and I’m not seeing it coming.” Well, the answer was yes, and it was the kind of invitation I needed. I used it as an opportunity to slow down my thoughts and feelings so I could start to climb out of that pit of worry and uneasiness that gets me extra sassy. I’ll break down the process I try to engage.

Start paying attention to your inner experience.

Awareness of our experience is a basic thing, but it’s the foundation we need to make other changes. Ask yourself, “What am I stressing about?” Pay attention to the feelings in your body, your mood, what you’ve been telling yourself, or the pictures that are popping into your mind.

Once you have a better idea about what you’re dealing with you can start to re-evaluate, plan, solve problems, cut down on commitments, or even communicate what you need to the people at home or on your team at work.

Examine what you actually can (and cannot) control.

How many of us are carrying the weight of decisions that aren’t within our control to make? That’s a guaranteed way to feel powerless. Now that you’ve named the worry or situation that is burdening you, get clear about what you can change or have influence over. Try giving yourself permission to set aside the stuff that you can’t do anything about.

Guess what you can control… your expectations.

This is the practice of acceptance over resistance. The faster I notice that I’m tense because my expectations aren’t being met, the faster I can re-evaluate my expectations and adapt. My husband and I learned this lesson when our children were babies. They needed us to stay flexible. Babies don’t care that you planned to work on email during nap time. Sometimes, the nap is interrupted, and you just need to be in that rocker.

Right now, our days are upside down…heck, maybe your plan for the whole year is upside down. I’m guessing there are some expectations you can let go of for your own good. Getting it done perfectly or to-plan is far less important than the way you handle this situation with yourself and with the people in your home.

Get clear about your values and let them guide the way.

Knowing our values is one of the most empowering ways to make tough choices and changes when things get rough. When I catch myself back in that snippy, impatient tone, it’s a lot easier for me to call myself up when I know who I want to be and the kind of choices I want to make.

One of my personal values is rooted in attachment theory and my beliefs about how important relationships are. My mantra, “Be a safe place for people so they know they are loved.” This is my ‘darn good reason’ to turn things around when I’ve gone off course. My values help me re-define my win.

Here’s an example from the past week when my kids were tiring of mom simultaneously playing the role of kindergarten teacher and pre-school teacher.

Original plan (doomed to fail) –

Just do what I say because I made a plan, and I’m the boss, and I’ve got stuff to do after this.

Expecting my kindergarten daughter to complete all of her assignments on my list in the time range I had planned for the activity. Also expecting my pre-school daughter to sit and wait her turn or get excited about practicing letters after watching how easy it was for her older sister.

Updated plan (rooted in values) –

Show up for my kids in the way they need me and teach them through play that learning is fun.

Stay focused on the experience, the “process” over the product. Show flexibility when it’s not working and get creative about ways to create a playful experience that keeps the kids engaged and feeling confident in their abilities.

Real life execution:

3-year-old is dressed up as Bo-Peep. She’s crying and interrupting math homework with older sister…. she can’t find the Bo-Peep hair bow and she’s karate chopping sister with Bo-Peep’s staff to get my attention.

Take a 5-minute break and find the coveted hair bow. Redirect her energy with the staff, inviting her to point to letter cards while we sing the ABC’s.

Then, let her play Bo-Peep while I work with big sis on math homework.

Whew! Seriously though, this option was more enjoyable, and we all bonded over it.

Be kind to yourself.

Here’s the thing, no matter how much you care and put effort in, you’re not going to get it right all of the time. If you’re going to have what it takes over the long haul, you will need to practice speaking kindly to yourself (and about yourself) so you can stay strong and keep at it.

A few reminders:

  1. No one is perfect. Other people are experiencing bad days too. Most people just don’t plaster them all over social media.
  2. Kindness isn’t permission to keep doing something damaging. It’s acknowledging what you’re up against, that you want something better, and that you’re capable of change.

I’m on the journey right there with you! Each day that I let myself engage this process, I move closer to the calm, loving, and effective parts of myself. Just imagine how much you can watch yourself grow through this time. You just might have some important stories to tell about learning to be resilient during COVID.

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