- Life is too short to react to everything as do or die. Try to laugh most irritants off.
- Everyone, everywhere, every day experiences minor emotional turmoil, and the exact event varies as an individual difference.
- There are known categories of annoyances that, when understood, help you better cope, or anticipate problems and tips on how to cope.
- A psychological irritant or setback, if of sufficient intensity and duration, often causes mental health problems requiring professional help.
Psychotherapy is often about dealing with psychological irritants.
The process of psychotherapy addresses psychological irritants as a matter of course. I explore the concept of common psychological irritants, list ten criteria for it to be so labeled, list some everyday annoyances and what to do about them, differentiate attitude (life philosophy) from principles (codes of conduct), mention two types of stresses and define "nervous breakdown."
Any minor irritant can push someone over the edge.
Many presenting problems in therapy are petty annoyances that most everyone experiences. Treatment involves realizing this fact and how to better cope. A minor irritation, a "petty annoyance," can be the straw that breaks the camel's back under chronic stress.
If you are overreacting in rage to minor frustrations, reevaluate your current situation and priorities. Everyone becomes fed up with something, but a psychologically healthy person deals with it. Minor setbacks and petty resentments can breed resentments, impairing mental health.
What is a petty annoyance?
Petty annoyances are stressful, out of your control, or minor irritations when a goal is blocked, as a function of a bad outcome, a complication, or when you feel frustrated––for example from your car battery going dead, forgetting to bring an umbrella or to being late for an appointment.
Often there is time pressure, shame, or embarrassment. You have to apologize, and often the fault is not your own. The situation is simply annoying tipping the mental health scale and making a relatively well-adjusted person unable to cope or remain resilient.
10 main criteria on how to categorize a common irritant.
There are ten main criteria for an "annoyance" or what we all sometimes experience, requiring mental resilience, tolerance, and a long frustration fuse.
First, the situation must be an annoying, unpleasant, absent danger. A Mayfly buzzing about your head in May is an example.
Second, the annoyance is externalized. That is, you lack control over its onset and offset, which is unpredictable and intermittent. Your friend has a cat. You are allergic to the cat. When the friend is over, there is dander on his shirt on your chair. Most externalized annoyances habituate, like if you live in a big city, you don't hear the constant noise of the traffic, but a visitor does. You feel out of control.
The third is duration. You might live in a war zone or experience a pandemic absent the hope for a vaccine. There is hopelessness aggravating everything else frustrating that is happening. This is a capitulation, the life of "quiet desperation."
Fourth, context matters. If you enjoy reading, where you read matters. If you are reading to "kill time" delayed at the airport, the situation is not as enjoyable. The place is enriched, impairing flow or "getting into the story." You are also surrounded by strangers, have to check flight board, and can't relax.
Fifth is recency. What were you doing before the annoyance? If a resident physician just pulled a triple shift, she is mentally and physically exhausted, so it will not take much to get her riled up. Her car does not start, and it is snowing. It is not the end of the world, but it sure feels like it.
Six is culture. If you do not know local ways, you may inadvertently annoy someone by your manner of shaking hands instead of bowing. You may be unfairly labeled as rude, but you meant well.
Seventh is progress. When cell phones became pervasive, you only heard one side of a conversation, and if stuck with the person in a closed space was annoying. In addition, constant software updates and changes to the user interface are incredibly annoying relearning what you just mastered.
Eighth is personal biology that "automatically" (the autonomic nervous system) solves for "annoying" via the gag reflex or for dry eyes using the eye blink. The gag reflex prevents choking. A middle ear muscle protects us from deafening, sudden noises. These "back office" mechanisms maintain physical health and well-being. We never "think" about them.
Ninth is olfactory evolution. Many common irritants are foul smells. These smells are annoying but in our best interest. These putrid smells signal "danger." Stay away. They are "annoying" but keep us alive or safe.
The tenth is everyday annoyances, listed below (a tiny sample): Do you have some favorites?
Unreturned telephone calls or “voicemail full.”
Meeting the man or woman of your dreams at your wedding reception.
Jammed seat belts are impossible to unbuckle after an accident.
Sharing a cab with someone famous––and you would like to interact––but are nervous and tongue-tied.
Living up to other people’s expectations.
Realizing that the “free drinks” at the blackjack table weren’t free after losing $500.
TYPING IN ALL CAPS before realizing it
Change not returned from a vending machine.
Watching someone slowly count pennies.
Trying to spread frozen butter on fresh bread.
Double faulting in every game in tennis.
Different airline prices on the same flight for the same seat.
Tips built into the check.
Wanting to write something down but not having a pencil or paper.
Preachers who request donations in exchange for salvation.
Any new upgrade to an operating system.
(add your irritant here):
10 Concrete tips on how to deal with petty annoyances.
Modern life presents unique challenges and opportunities. A presenting complaint is often triggered by an annoying event. The question is, what does the event mean to you. We interpret the same event differently. That said, here are 10 tips on how to deal with the irritating annoyance.
1. Put things in perspective.
2. Accept what you can't control.
3. Realize all people make mistakes or overreact.
4. Jot down your primary triggers.
5. Shift mental focus to more positives.
6. If possible, address the situation. If not, move on.
7. Grin and bear it. Have a laugh.
8. Be patient.
9. Avoid people you know who might mess with your head.
10. Understand moods.
Many presenting complaints are quotidian––commonplace events that represented something psychologically significant, based on learning history, for the person. If you experienced the same event, you might not even notice it, but everyone has a breaking point. "Anger management" courses, among other factors, deal with the person knowing their petty annoyance triggers.
What I label a petty annoyance is not what you may label a petty annoyance, nor is a real crisis.
A life crisis, a bad attitude, or a violation of principle is not "a petty annoyance." The definition depends on life philosophy or your general attitude about right and wrong. For example, If I ask someone to do something, and they agree and do not do it, it exceeds the "petty" in petty annoyance. The failure to act violated my sense of fairness and responsibility in the moral universe, and you may well disagree or not care.
I am also not de-emphasizing the big stuff: the discovery of an affair, a medical condition, poverty, failure, and loss, but only suggesting that we all have more on our plate than we realize, so when something big goes wrong may well be the tipping point when that long line drives you bonkers.
All stress is not necessarily an annoyance.
An annoyance can be a stressor, but not always. It depends on the perceived internal versal external locus of control. There is eustress or positive stress and distress or negative stress. Eustress is climbing the mountain or studying for a test. Distress is a mental or biological event out of your control and concerning.
What is a nervous breakdown?
If you get all hot and bothered at everything, what is there to be happy about? Often when you hear about a person having a “nervous breakdown,” it refers to the insidious accumulation of these negative minor and significant influences leading to clinical anxiety and depression until the person can no longer function or enjoy life. Instead, expect minor hassles. Learn to calm down, so you don’t have to make it through every yellow light before it turns red.
Urbina, I. (2005) Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore. Times Books. Henry Hold and Company. New York.
Annoying Science (2011). Winerman. L. Vol. 42, No. 10. American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.
Palca, J. (2019) Why do we get annoyed? Science has irritating few answers. National Geographic magazine. Washington, D.C.