Annoyances. Aggravations. Irritations. We all have them. We all get annoyed. Some suffer from few grievances, while some have peeves streaming out of their ears, ready to jump out of their chairs at the sound of a co-worker clicking his pen or the sight of a grammatical error. But why?
Well, irritation is an emotional response to a stimulus. There are several factors at play regarding emotions including brain function and behavior. Very simply put, when something happens that you find irritating, your brain will release hormones that tell you to be annoyed and/or angry. (There are several books you could read about this, two I recommend are The Developing Mind, How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, by Daniel J. Siegel and Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman.)
The limbic system (also known as the reptilian brain because it is the oldest and least developed portion of the brain, acting out of need for survival and lacking reasoning ability) produces these emotions. True, we don’t seem to have much control over this portion of the brain (think flight or fight). However, humans also possess a well-designed cortical structure along with brilliantly evolved neural communication allowing us to take control over these autonomic functions.
That’s right, as humans, we have control over our minds. We can control our thoughts, our emotions, and our reactions. We can choose. This is my most valued mantra. We can choose. We literally have the choice whether to allow something to annoy us. I did not know this until a couple years ago, but once I did, my load lightened and life became infinitely more enjoyable. You can do it, too, and here are some tips.
1. Learn to recognize that you are feeling irritation and anger.
Meditation plays a huge role here. I recommend reading Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley, for further explanation and scientific evidence of the role of meditation in changing your behavior. Incorporate a daily meditation practice if you haven’t done so. If you are so busy that you feel you cannot possibly fit in another daily routine, try to squeeze in a 10 minute meditation before bed. It will help calm your mind, allowing you to more easily fall asleep (which could possibly even save you more time than it took to meditate). But you will also reap mental benefits. If you think you will forget all about this goal, write a couple reminder notes and post near your monitor, on your fridge, wherever you tend to get aggravated.
2. Determine where in your body you feel irritation and anger.
This will help you realize that you are irritated. I feel it in my gut and chest. When something irritates me, my chest gets heavy and my stomach starts twisting. I get a sudden urge to scream to release the pressure building in my abdomen. This is my physiological manifestation of this type of emotion; your’s may be different. Remind yourself to pay attention each time you feel irritated.
3. Take a deep breath.
Once you have gotten the hang of tips 1 and 2, you can start the fun part – controlling the emotion. Taking a deep breath will help to ease the physiological manifestation. For me, the breath eases the pressure on the stomach and chest, which subsequently eases the urge to scream.
4. Apply logical reasoning.
After you have stopped and taken a breath, ask yourself if it is necessary for you to be irritated by this stimulus or if this feeling is just arising out of learned habit and subcortical function. Will the cackling of school girls at table three pose risk to your life? Will the act of your daughter popping her knuckles hurt you somehow? Will the sound of your spouse eating do any real damage to you in any way? More often than not, if you answer these questions honestly, you will start to understand that your common annoyances are simply not necessary and are in fact reducing your quality of life.
A simple truth: allowing yourself to be irritated by non-threatening incidents will cause unnecessary suffering for yourself. You will almost never be able to prevent these things from happening. However, you can change whether you allow them to annoy you.
Start practicing this today. When you forget, try to remember next time. When you fail, try again. When you feel like you can’t do it, remember that you can. You have the higher brain function necessary to perform this skill, and now you have the knowledge of how to do it. And when, after a few years, you haven’t perfected this skill, keep practicing, because you will never perfect it. But you will get better every day; and your suffering will decrease every day; and your quality of life will increase every day. At least that’s been my experience.
Have questions or additional advice? Leave a comment or contact me. I’m always happy to help if I can.