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This is the psychology of why Covid is making us more irritable

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Aiden Wynn
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The coronavirus pandemic has been a nightmare for many people, and for a number of different reasons. But while we all know just how stressful it can be, it turns out there’s more to our frustration than first meets the eye.  A psychologist explains the scientific reasons why we’ve all been feeling so irritable during the pandemic. 

This year has been frustrating, to say the very least. Back at the start of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic halted the world and placed restrictions on our day-to-day lives which we are still living with today. With infection numbers continuing to rise and more local lockdowns coming into force across the country, it’s looking like this new normal will be with us for a while. 

As a result of all this upheaval, many people have been feeling scared, angry and stressed, and this has made many people much, much more irritable – ourselves included. But why is that we’re so quick to respond with irritation, even when that’s clearly not the most productive way to react? Well, as it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for our frequent tetchiness, and it goes way back into our hardwiring. 

You see, our daily lives are nowhere near as comfortable or straightforward as they once were. As a result of all the new obstacles we find ourselves up against every day, it has become more difficult for us to get our basic needs met. 

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Our basic needs are four-fold, and include a need for security and safety, intimacy and belonging, and feelings of accomplishment, according to Psychology Today. But when these basic needs aren’t met, this can cause us to go into “fear and trauma mode”, and make us feel as though we don’t have control of our lives.

We are hardwired to switch to “fight-or-flight” when we are confronted with situations that threaten our ability to fulfil our needs. “Typically, we feel anger and aggression in fight mode”, meaning that we are much more likely to lash out, regardless of whether it’s a productive or rational thing to do. 

What the ongoing pandemic is teaching us is that there are more ways for us to feel as though we aren’t getting our needs met than we may have realised. As Dr Becky Spelman, a psychologist and clinical director at The Private Therapy Clinic, explains, when we are constantly being told we can’t do the things we want to as we did before, it can feel as though we’ve been hit with a roadblock.

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We are hardwired to switch to “fight-or-flight” when we are confronted with situations that threaten our ability to fulfil our needs.

Whether this means having to queue for your weekly food shop because otherwise it just isn’t safe, being turned away from a restaurant when you’re hungry because you didn’t book in advance, or simply not being able to see the people you love, Coronavirus restrictions cause us to experience a certain level of deprivation and uncertainty on a regular basis, triggering that stress response. 

Not to mention that day-to-day life is just a lot more convoluted than it once was. So, in addition to the ways in which these big changes to the smallest parts of our lives affect us psychologically, “it really is just frustrating that life is not as easy as it used to be”, says Dr Spelman. “It’s quite understandable that people will be feeling irritable and at times angry”.

The best thing we can do to manage our irritability is, unfortunately, just ride it out. “Eventually people will get used to this new way of doing things”, explains Dr Spelman, and once we do, we will have a better understanding of how to deal with obstacles as they arise. This will make difficult situations feel less threatening, and should mean we have a better understanding of how to get our needs met, despite any constraints. 

If you’re worried about your mental health at the time, support and resources are available on mental health charity Mind’s website or the NHS online pages.

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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