Irritable people are difficult. It’s hard not to feel like you have to walk on tiptoes around them, like even mild criticism could cause them to blow up, like they’re probably, when possible, best avoided altogether. And the grumpy, irritable co-worker is an archetype for a reason: These sorts of people are everywhere.
There’s a more serious side to irritability, though. In addition to the fact that frequent or extreme irritability can lead to trouble with work, personal, and romantic relationships, psychologists and other researchers have long recognized that irritability can be an important symptom of other underlying conditions — in contexts ranging from managing depression to Alzheimer’s care, a patient’s level of irritability can matter a great deal.
And for Susan Holtzman, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, irritability deserves an even closer look. “It’s hard because people are rarely just irritable — irritability often goes with a lot of other negative emotions,” she told Science of Us. “It often goes with stress, it goes with depression, it goes with anxiety, it goes with anger.” Holtzman and some of her colleagues believe irritability should be assessed — and needs to be better understood — on its own terms.
In a study they published in 2014, Holtzman and a group of co-authors noted that “research on the causes, consequences, and treatments of irritability has been hindered by limitation in existing measurement tools.” To fix that, the authors, borrowing in part from other, longer inventories, created a short-form irritability assessment tool they call the Brief Irritability Test, or BITe.
You can take it here:
I have been grumpy
I have been feeling like I might snap
Other people have been getting on my nerves
Things have been bothering me more than they normally do
I have been feeling irritable
Your irritability level is:
“The reason that we developed this measure is because we want to try to isolate irritability as its own important construct,” she explained. “We think that irritability on its own is important, but because it's usually just measured with one item mixed in with a bunch of other ones, we still don’t know a lot about irritability per se.”
For now, the BITe is a new enough measurement tool that Holtzman and her colleagues don’t yet have very much data. But as they gather more, it could lead to the creation of better, more specific treatments for a variety of psychological problems. “We don’t know a lot about irritability yet, but since we know there could be consequences to irritability, it’s something that could likely benefit from treatment,” said Holtzman. “So if we can isolate irritability we can perhaps develop treatments that are best targeted towards people that are particularly irritable. Somebody could be very depressed but have no symptoms of irritability — on the other hand, someone could have depression and the prominent emotion may be irritability more than sadness. And you’d likely want to treat those two people in different ways.”
Irritability often isn’t a sign of something serious, of course — Holtzman cited a lack of sleep as one cause of a short-term irritability. You might have perfectly good reasons for being irritable. But in just the same way sadness and happiness are normal human emotions that, when taken to their extremes, can cause trouble, too much irritability might be a cause for concern. And as research on this subject continues, experts will have a better sense of what to do about it.