What Does the Term ‘Emotionally Unstable’ Mean?

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Language Note: While people may still use the term "emotionally unstable," this term is not an official diagnosis and is both stigmatizing and offensive. It's more appropriate to use the term borderline personality disorder (BPD).

What Does the Term ‘Emotionally Unstable’ Mean?

Emotional instability is a catch-all term sometimes used to refer to unpredictable reactions and extreme emotions. While it is natural for everyone to experience a range of emotions, the term is usually used when discussing people who have more difficulty regulating their emotions.

It is not an official diagnosis, but it is common to hear its use when discussing emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) or, as it’s more commonly known, borderline personality disorder (BPD).

That said, difficulty in regulating emotions can also occur within other mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

What Is Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD)?

As mentioned above, EUPD is another name used to describe BPD — a personality disorder characterized by unstable moods and emotions, relationships, and behavior.

BPD, if left untreated, can severely impact a person’s life behavior, self-image and stress-related thinking. Thus, it is commonly associated with issues like relationship, work, and school problems.

Why This Terminology Is Problematic

The term EUPD is seldom used these days due to the negative connotations it denotes. For example, a recent 2021 observational study found the term EUPD causes stigma to patients, thus further limiting their access to mental health services. They also found that it lacks the nuance to accurately reflect the true nature and gravity of the illness.

In some cases, the term "emotional intensity disorder" (EID) is also used in its place. However, this term is less commonly used as its deemed quite controversial too.

All these terms are often used interchangeably (and some more than others due to personal preference). But, BPD is by far the most common one — though it is also seen to be outdated.

Signs & Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder

People with BPD don’t all experience the same symptoms, and the condition can look different for everyone. In addition, the frequency, duration, and severity of these symptoms also change depending on a person and their history. However, there is ample research on the topic; therefore, there are many common signs that help clinicians diagnose someone with it.

Some common signs and symptoms of BPD include:

  • A pattern of unstable and intense relationships with loved ones, family, friends, and work colleagues
  • A disordered sense of self and self-image
  • Repeated efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment
  • Impulsive and risky behaviors, such as risky sex, substance abuse, uncontrolled financial spending, reckless driving, and binge eating
  • Self-harming behaviors like cutting
  • Suicidal ideation — recurring thoughts of suicidal threats and behaviors
  • Feelings of chronic emptiness that don’t go away easily
  • Issues regulating anger or aggressive outbursts
  • Dissociation (i.e., feeling as if you’re cut off from yourself, your feelings, or reality)
  • Very intense moods that can quickly change

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Is It Appropriate to Use the Term “Emotionally Unstable?”

While the term is sometimes used in a clinical setting, it is inappropriate to use. The statement brings forth negative connotations; therefore, it is highly offensive and stigmatizing. For example, a 2007 study found that stigma against mental illness contributes to the hesitancy of young people seeking help for their mental illnesses.

The study found 250 labels that were deemed stigmatizing and “unstable” was one of them. In addition, using the term around someone struggling with their mental health could worsen their emotional regulation.

“Emotionally unstable” is an impolite and triggering term; therefore, it is highly advised that people remove it from their vocabulary.

What to Say Instead

Well, it is important to interrogate what it is you are actually trying to say and be specific. For example, instead of naming the situation, perhaps it may be best to think of ways to defuse the emotions being expressed. Ask the individual how you can help make them feel safe or perhaps, help them seek medical care.

Other than this, the most agreed-upon term used when discussing issues with managing, expressing, and coping with emotions is “emotion regulation.” While it is broad, it does not carry the same stigma and harshness.

How Is Borderline Personality Disorder Treated?

At one point in time, many experts believed that BPD was treatment-resistant. However, current research shows that BPD is very treatable with the right mental health professional. As a result, there are many people with BPD who are leading fulfilling lives.

Some of the most common treatment options include:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is the most typical treatment option for those with BPD. There are a few different types that are seen as effective in treating BPD; these are:

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): This is a modified type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It was formed as a response to the belief that the problems of BPD come from individuals with high emotional sensitivity and invalidating environments. Therefore, DBT teaches people to recognize and become aware of their beliefs and behaviors. It teaches individuals how to live in the moment, improve their relationships, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. It can also teach people more balanced responses to the behaviors of others.
  • Mentalization-Based Treatment (MBT): The term “mentalizing” refers to the ability of someone to recognize their mental state and other people’s emotions to better understand interpersonal interactions. Therefore, this is a type of therapy that focuses on helping people with their ability to recognize their thoughts, wishes, feelings and desires. It does this by seeing how they are linked to behavior. MBT proposes that BPD symptoms occur when individuals stop mentalizing. So, it aims to help people improve their understanding of themselves and others.

Medication

Medication is often recommended by a medical professional to treat BPD. The medication doesn’t cure it, but it does offer some relief from some symptoms. It is also often used in conjunction with psychotherapy for better symptom relief.

Some medications commonly prescribed include antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antianxiety medication.

Other Treatment Options

In times of crisis, hospitalizations or more intensive treatments can sometimes be recommended. While this is a stigmatized option, it is important not to feel any shame in receiving this treatment option. You are more than deserving of getting help that you need.

A Word From Verywell

While emotional instability is a very real and difficult thing to deal with, using the term “emotionally unstable” is not advisable. While you may mean well, it is important to remember that for some it may be a very sensitive and triggering term. Therefore, to be safe it is best to use another term, or offer more practical advice, such as self-care and mindfulness.

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