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"It Can Be An Indicator Of Underlying Stress": Mental Health Experts Share Their Advice For Coping When The "Small Stuff" Feels Enormous

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As the adage goes, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” But that might be easier said than done for many of us.

“It’s not uncommon to become upset over small things sometimes,” Nicole Raines, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told HuffPost. “Especially after the collective past few years that we have lived through, the uncertainty and grief experiences may have you feeling a little more on edge than you may have felt before.”

We all have our moments of frustration and emotional outbursts, but pay attention to the frequency of these incidents. You might start to feel like you have a short fuse all the time.

“If someone finds themselves repeatedly becoming upset over seemingly small events, it can be an indicator of underlying stress,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Becky Stuempfig. “Everyone has ‘off’ days at times where even the smallest of problems seem to bring irritation, but if there’s a pattern of big reactions to relatively minor events, it can be a red flag that something deeper is causing this irritability.”

She pointed to a wide array of issues that might be behind your low emotional tolerance ― relationship struggles, financial instability, food insecurity, past unprocessed trauma, grief, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sleep issues, isolation, undiagnosed mental health conditions and more.

“The key element is that there is a need that has not been properly met that is manifesting as irritability,” Stuempfig said.

So what should you do to deal with this situation? Raines, Stuempfig and other experts shared their advice for those who find themselves getting upset about little things more often than feels healthy.

Track your responses.

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“Be curious about what you are experiencing,” Raines said. “Sometimes the fear of something being ‘wrong’ can intensify the emotion.”

She recommended paying attention to the intensity, frequency and duration of your negative feelings.

“What do you notice in the moments when you feel like your emotional response feels more in proportion to the situation?” Raines asked. “Are there things from those moments that you can recreate or do more of?”

On the other end of the spectrum, consider where your thoughts go in the moments when you’re easily frustrated and overreact. Ask yourself if you immediately see red or feel the need to protect or defend yourself, suggested Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“Do old memories enter your mind?” she added. “By tracking your responses, you can begin to address the real cause of the reaction. Chances are, what is happening in real time isn’t the real issue and there is something else fueling the short fuse.”

Give yourself some space.

In moments when you start to feel easily frustrated, you should try to pay attention to your gut reactions ― but also do what you can to avoid flying off the handle.

“You can begin to give yourself opportunities for delaying the overreaction,” Henry said. “A first step could be separating yourself from what is triggering you.”

That might mean leaving the room and going somewhere private and quiet to breathe and work through your reaction.

“The goal is to take moments to consciously and intentionally make the choice to react differently despite what you are feeling organically,” Henry said.

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Try self-soothing techniques.

“For someone who finds themself feeling irritable on a regular basis, mindfulness and deep breathing exercises can be helpful in calming down the nervous system,” Stuempfig said. “Sensory activities focusing on what we hear, smell, taste and feel in the moment can help reduce irritability by decreasing time spent worrying about past or future events.”

From meditation and yoga to painting and gardening, there are countless sensory activities that adults can try. Even dancing and listening to music can be mindful practices.

Raines similarly recommended focusing on your five senses as a way to self-soothe in moments of stress. For example, you might touch something soft, tap your fingers, take deep breaths, smell something scented or focus on staring at a piece of art on the wall.

“Notice the environment you are in through each of the five senses or the ones that are open to you,” she said.

Take stock of big areas of your life.

“If you find yourself frequently having angry reactions out of proportion to the source, it can be helpful to take inventory of the major areas of your life and consider where the unmet needs may be,” Stuempfig said. “Are there past traumatic events that have been stored up and not fully addressed or processed? Are there past losses that have not been acknowledged? Is there tension in a relationship that needs to be relieved and worked through?”

She advised asking yourself if financial or job-related concerns are impacting your overall level of stress, or if you’re feeling isolated and lonely in life.

“Recognize that your ‘emotional bucket’ is getting filled quickly and take some time to reflect on why that might be,” said clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla. “Even if everything seems fine on the surface, it’s possible you’re operating just below your threshold and don’t have a healthy buffer to be able to deal with momentary setbacks. There needs to be some room for the day to unfold as it might and for you to be able to tackle it in a way that doesn’t derail you.”

Just keeping things “under control” and expecting everything to play out as planned is not a sustainable approach as unplanned changes and issues inevitably arise. Addressing the bigger issues bubbling under the surface will give you the bandwidth to react to those unexpected moments in a healthy way.

Reach out to loved ones. 

“Feeling upset is very different from the feelings being accompanied by outbursts,” Raines said. “When the anger and frustration is accompanied by outbursts or other difficult behaviors, being able to have support in finding ways to manage is helpful.”

Even just talking to a friend about your experience can provide a helpful sense of support. This is true in general, as well as in the moment of overreaction.

“Call someone you trust to vent or process what you’re feeling,” Henry suggested.

Reach out to loved ones if you feel like your emotions have gotten overwhelming and are leading to behavioral changes. You might even realize your reactions are related to communication issues that you need to address.

“Two common themes that can result in chronic irritability is resentment toward others as well as difficulty communicating about getting one’s emotional needs met, factors that are often interrelated,” Stuempfig said. “It is very common for people to struggle with expressing themselves and therefore internalizing their feelings. This can lead to a build up of resentment and rather than asking for what they need, they continue to feel dissatisfied and have a high baseline level of anger and irritability.”

Talk to a professional.

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“There are individual differences in how much of the frustration caused by daily hassles each of us can absorb,” Delawalla said. “However, depression, anxiety, or unresolved past trauma can significantly impact our ability to manage these frustrations and often create big emotional responses that seem out of proportion to the circumstances.”

That’s why it’s important to seek professional help to manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD and other issues.

“If someone is getting feedback from multiple people that their irritability seems out of proportion to the precipitating event, that is an ideal time to seek the support of a mental health professional to help further examine the deeper issues and address unmet needs,” Stuempfig said.

Even if you don’t think you’re dealing with any serious mental health issues, talking to a therapist can help you uncover why your emotional responses feel out of proportion to their triggers.

“Engaging in therapy can be helpful in building behavioral patterns that allow you to ‘let off steam’ in healthy and productive ways so you can maintain that buffer,” Delawalla said. “Therapy can also help for processing life changes.”This post originally appeared on HuffPost.