How To Recognise Irritability As An Addiction Symptom

Irritability is one of the most common and enduring addiction symptoms. You may not notice it at first – but your loved ones are likely to bring it to your attention.
Irritability is characterised by agitation and becoming easily stressed and frustrated. You might find yourself losing your temper easily or snapping over small things that didn’t bother you before. The emergence of negative emotional states like anxiety and irritability is a characteristic of addiction – and is caused by chronically altering your brain chemistry.

The neurobiology of drug-induced irritability

Irritability occurs due to disruption to the brain’s pathways associated with reward and stress.

When you compulsively take a substance, this leads to a state called allostasis. Allostasis is the process of achieving stability by repeating the same behaviour. In simple terms, you change your brain chemistry every time you drink or take a drug; your brain gets used to that state, and it adapts to it. This leads to an allostatic state where your reward circuitry is disrupted.

Every time you drink or take drugs, you are short-circuiting your brain’s reward circuitry. This means withdrawal, in particular, can be challenging for your desensitised reward system, as no longer having the substance which your brain is used to feels extremely unpleasant.

Chronic substance abuse also disrupts brain circuitry associated with stress – meaning that during withdrawal, you’re primed to feel it more acutely. Calming neurotransmitters in the brain, such as GABA, can also be disrupted, changing your stress response and mood regulation.

Some frameworks view irritability as a reaction to a blocked goal. This means that irritability can also plague you in active addiction – small inconveniences or interpersonal issues can be experienced as larger than they are and blown out of proportion due to your altered reward circuitry and lowered tolerance for stress.

Irritability can persist into recovery, as the allostatic changes to the brain are long-term (but not permanent). Your brain will take time to heal and rewire from chronic substance usage, and during this time, you can continue to feel irritable. With sustained abstinence, this irritability will subside.

Signs of irritability

Often, a loved one will be the person who notices changes in your behaviour—losing your temper over minor things, impatience, and outbursts. Physical changes can also accompany these, including muscle tension, shallow breathing and difficulty sleeping. These symptoms overlap a lot with those of stress—the main difference is that they’re accompanied by anger and lashing out.


Going through substance withdrawal has the potential to be a major trigger for irritability. However, many day-to-day stressors can also trigger intense feelings of irritability.
Interpersonal conflicts such as arguing with your partner or frustrating interactions at work can trigger feelings of irritability, as can financial stressors. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction are financial burdens and often cause interpersonal conflict. More frustrating situations may be happening to you as a consequence of your addiction, while at the same time, your brain is not in a place where it’s able to deal with it adequately.

The outbursts and erratic behaviours that happen as a result of irritability in addiction can worsen interpersonal, job-related and financial stressors.
It’s not possible to insulate yourself from everything that triggers feelings of irritability. As the root cause is addiction, getting help for substance abuse is the best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones.

Coping strategies

Managing irritability in addiction treatment involves practical coping strategies and long-term self-care techniques that focus on calming yourself.

  • Reframing your thoughts: This cognitive-behavioural technique recognises that many of our emotional responses can be affected by the thoughts we have about them and how we process them. Thinking about a situation you find frustrating in a more positive way can calm down the anger you feel about it.
  • Breathe: Breathing exercises calm you down and give you time to step away from a situation mentally for a moment.
  • Exercise: Exercise lowers baseline stress levels, and the endorphins help you to feel less irritable.
  • Self-care: Prioritising the things and activities that you find enjoyable while taking good care of your immediate physical needs gives you a healthy baseline for a calmer mental state.

Co-occurring mental health disorders

Irritability is a distinct component of depression and anxiety and is also a predictor of future depression and anxiety. It’s also a symptom of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Dual diagnosis – having a diagnosed mental health condition at the same time as an addiction – is common. Irritability can happen in addiction and recovery both because of addiction and as a symptom of a co-occurring mental health disorder.

If you’re struggling with a mental health condition and addiction, it’s important to seek out treatment for both. Integrated approaches aim to treat both conditions simultaneously, with the same team, and are the best way to deal with a dual diagnosis. Addiction rehab centres are familiar with dual diagnosis and will be in the best position to get you the needed treatment.

Reach out to us today, and we’ll assist you in finding the ideal rehab facility to support you on your journey to recovery from addiction.

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