A simple solution to being a grumpy old bastard

Grumpy old bastard…

We have all heard the term bandied about or muttered the words under our breath. You may have been called the rather unfortunate name yourself. ‘Grumpy old bastard’ is a common Australian colloquialism for a person who appears to be perpetually unhappy, easily angered, or just outright oppositional without good reason. They often have an ability to share their foul mood with those who are unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

I’ll be honest. I can’t cure the ‘old’ part in ‘grumpy old bastard’. If you have the solution to aging please send your secret my way. However, I have a pretty good insight to one of the major causes of grumpiness in adults and what can be done to remedy it.

Why are some people so grumpy?

No one wants to be grumpy. That seems pretty obvious. So why are some people still so grumpy? One of the biggest reasons a person may be grumpy is because they are plain, straight out, tired. To function effectively, your body needs sleep daily and it needs its full quota of it. Sleep is no different to food and water. You can die if you go for long enough without it. It is like a basic nutrient.

Many people become a little grumpy if they don’t get food. The phenomenon is so well known that Snickers had an entire marketing campaign about ‘hangry’ people (hangry = hunger induced anger). Similarly, people get grumpy if they don’t get enough sleep.

I have to admit I experience both of these phenomenon. I now make a concerted effort to avoid others experiencing the unwarranted wrath of me not taking care of my biological requirements. I now keep stashes of seeds to nibble on in my bag and have absolutely no shame in taking a nap. The people I share a co-working space can attest to this. A few have seen me duck off to hunker down in a pile of pillows or put my head down on my desk for 20 minutes about 2.30pm on some afternoons.

What’s going on with my biology?

There are some interesting biological mechanisms behind the grumpy tired phenomenon. When we are sleep deprived we have less control over our emotions. So how does this happen?

sleep deprived = poorer emotional regulation → easily angered or upset

The part of your brain which is responsible for logical thinking and moderating your behaviour is called the frontal lobes. When tired, your frontal lobes works far less effectively. One job your frontal lobes undertake is acting as your mental filter and behavioural breaking system. It stops you doing things which are a little silly, and things which you might want to do right now, but which will have unpleasant consequences later. For example, it stops you yelling at your boss because you think they’re stupid. It might feel good at the time but the consequences for doing that probably isn’t great.

The part of your brain responsible for processing emotions is called the limbic system. Regions within limbic system, dramatically overreact to negative experiences when sleep deprived. That same brain region also under-reacts to positive experiences when we are sleep deprived.

Functionally this means sleep deprived people :

  • Tend to feel more irritable and volatile.
  • Have more emotionally unpredictable responses.
  • Are more likely to over-react to seemingly innocuous events.
  • Are less able to feel pleasure and happiness.

What might that actually look like?

A sleep deprived can overreact to negative stimuli in a number of ways. Just imagine a sleep deprived person spills their coffee in the morning. They are more likely to get unreasonably angry or irritable and potentially blame ‘the table for being rickety’, ‘the cup for being too small’ or ‘someone for distracting them’ instead of thinking a much more reasonable thought like ‘oops I spilt my coffee, that’s annoying but no big deal. I’ll go make another’.

Alternatively underreaction to positive stimuli can also occur in many different ways every day. Imagine someone gave that same person a free delicious giant red velvet cupcake. They’re more likely to feel ‘meh it’s just a cupcake’ instead of feeling ‘YAY I got a free cupcake and I feel loved right now’ .

The combination of over-responding to negative events and under-responding to positive events when sleep deprived, means the person who has spilt their coffee may not actually even realise that yelling at the table for being rickety is being a bit ridiculous and is biologically unable to feel as happy in response to the cupcake.

Usually the prefrontal lobes and amygdala talk to each other very well and together they work together to moderate how we behave. When we are tired the parts of our brain in charge of emotional regulation and logical thinking don’t talk to each other as effectively they usually do. It is as if the message from the prefrontal lobes is heard by the amygdala as a whisper, instead of a shout.

We’ve all had those moments when we’ve wondered ‘what on earth was that person thinking?’ Chances are, it wasn’t that they weren’t thinking. It is more likely that the correct part of their brain wasn’t in control of their behaviour at the time they needed it to be in control and different parts of the brain weren’t communicating as effectively as they should.

What can I do about it?

So what does this all functionally mean for ‘grumpy old bastards’ out there? If they no longer want to be called a ‘grumpy old bastard’ and want to stop feeling angry and upset, there is only one answer. SLEEP. It is time for a nap and time to do something about improving their sleep.

I’ll cover some tricks and tips for improving sleep next post. If you have any other areas related to sleep, behaviour or psychology you are interested in being covered feel free to email me at felicity@circadyn.com and I will see what I can do.

I’ve also included links to a few references if you are interested