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By Gavin Newsham
Monday 17 January is so-called ‘Blue Monday’, a day said to be the most depressing of the year. For those who suffer from grumpiness, it’s fraught with even more difficulties.
Whether it’s an incident or an accident, a headache or a heartache, we are all prone to bad moods from time to time. But what happens when those moods become something altogether deeper and more prolonged? In other words, what happens when you become officially grumpy?
We asked Nick Wignall, a clinical psychologist, writer, teacher and podcaster, not only what grumpiness is but also how you can spot it and, more importantly, how can you address it, especially if it’s becoming a dominant issue in your life.
Watch: Five reasons to be cheerful on Blue Monday
“There’s no official consensus on what grumpiness is exactly, but the way I define it is that it's when you’re in a bad mood and you don’t know why,” he explains.
“Usually it has the characteristic of feeling bad emotionally in general but then also being vaguely irritated about the fact that you’re feeling bad, especially when other people point it out.”
Certainly, it’s something that the actor Martin Freeman has experienced. “I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man,” says the Sherlock star, “but nothing winds me up more than people saying 'chill out' to me when I'm irritated!”
Wignall argues that grumpiness isn’t something that comes out of the blue, rather that there is always at least one good explanation for it happening. “If you’re consistently feeling grumpy, there’s a good chance there’s a consistent reason behind those feelings,” he says.
“And if I had to bet, the solution probably involves learning to communicate your wants and needs more assertively or learning to let go of unhelpful expectations.”
Grumpiness, or irritability, can be caused by a wide range of factors, from sleep deprivation to low blood sugar levels, from stress and anxiety or even an underlying medical condition like diabetes, for example.
Hormonal changes as you age can also play a huge part in your mood and how you react in any given situation.
Watch: Grumpy cat pushes away owner's attempt to cuddle
Yes, the ‘grumpy old man’ really is a thing and it’s caused by the gradual decrease in a man’s testosterone levels that starts in their 30s. In men, the hormone also drives everything from energy to sex drive, fitness to confidence and when they’re affected so too are the way you conduct your personal relationships.
And when that happens, it’s inevitable that dissatisfaction or disappointment will lead to grumpiness. A steady decline in dopamine – the neurotransmitter that governs how we respond to pleasure – also makes grumpiness, as well as anxiety and depression, all the more likely.
Ageing, of course, also brings with it a greater likelihood of more medical conditions, some of which may be accompanied by pain or even chronic pain, which can leave you feeling listless, frustrated and irritable.
In his book The Happiness Curve, author and journalist Jonathan Rauch explains how happiness tends to be U-shaped with the lowest level of happiness coming in your 40s before bottoming out around 50 and then rising again as you head into middle-age and beyond.
But while older males are often perceived as the archetypal grump, it’s just as likely to occur in women as it is in men. The difference, says Wignall, is that women, as they are with most other medical concerns, are more predisposed to address it.
“In my clinical practice, it is pretty evenly split between men and women,” he says. “If there was a difference, it’s that men and women experience it roughly as often but that women are probably more likely to acknowledge it and talk about.”
And that’s the key to giving grumpiness the boot, as Nick Wignall explains. “The first thing is to remember to always be validating of your grumpiness. If you start beating yourself up or judging yourself for feeling grumpy, that will only intensify or prolong it. If grumpiness is something that only happens occasionally, I think a bit of self-compassion is probably all you need,” he advises.
But what if that grumpiness and irritability isn’t just a passing thing? What if it starts happening a little too often for your liking or if others are starting to notice it? The key is to try and understand what's driving it in the first place. Typically, there are two overarching reasons that need to be tackled, the first being unmet needs.
Those beset by grumpiness, for example, might often find themselves putting others’ interests first and then feel disappointed when that action isn’t reciprocated. “A good first step to working through grumpiness issues would be to ask yourself: what are things you chronically wish you had more of but feel afraid to ask for or pursue?”, says Wignall.
“Or take the flip side of that: what are some things you wish you had less of in your life but are afraid to set boundaries on?
The second, meanwhile, is all those unexamined expectations we have. It’s not just a case of the frustration felt when your own expectations of yourself can’t be met because they’re too high or unrealistic, but it’s also what happens when others don’t quite meet your standards. The secret, says Nick Wignall, is to step back and think.
“Try listing five important people in your life before thinking about any recurring expectations you have of those people,” he says.
“For each one of those expectations, ask yourself these three questions: is that expectation still relevant? Is the expectation realistic? And is the expectation helpful? If one or more of those is not true, you probably want to do some work revising those expectation or drop them altogether.”
For more information, visit nickwignall.com
Watch: Young Minds charity shares tips to help your mental health