What Is a Labile Affect?

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What Is a Labile Affect?

Labile affect is a condition that affects how a person expresses their emotions. A person with this condition might either display emotions excessively or show inappropriate emotions in specific situations. For instance, you might find them laughing or smiling at a funeral or during a sad occasion. Sudden and noticeable mood swings also characterize the condition.

People with a labile affect might think they simply have mood swings, but they tend to have more intense emotional reactions to situations than the typical person. The condition is also called emotional lability, pseudobulbar affect, or inappropriate affect

The word "labile" specifically means constantly going through change. Labile affect is a lot more severe than simply experiencing mood swings. For some people, it could significantly disrupt their personal lives. 

A person with labile affect might sometimes not even be aware of the emotions they are exhibiting or that the emotions are inappropriate. They will experience frequent and sudden mood swings and, sometimes, could even be aggressive. 

Symptoms of a Labile Affect

A labile affect ranges in severity and symptoms. People who have this condition might exhibit it in the following ways: 

  • Crying for seemingly no reason, or for reasons people won’t typically cry
  • Suddenly laughing or smiling during inappropriate occasions like a funeral or a job interview
  • Displaying no emotion in situations you’d be expected to, like hearing some shocking news
  • Being unable to control your emotions, for instance you might keep laughing even though you no longer find a joke funny
  • Displaying emotions that are unrelated to the feelings you are experiencing (e.g., laughing uncontrollably even though they are sad. 
  • Experiencing a sudden and unexpected switch in emotions, for instance, a person who was laughing might suddenly become angry with seemingly no triggers
  • Feeling no relief after expressing an emotion

Causes of a Labile Affect 

A neurological or psychotic condition or a traumatic brain injury could cause a labile affect. When a neurological disorder causes it, there’s typically a disconnect in the brain that affects how communication signals are sent. With psychotic conditions, delusions and hallucinations could make a person express emotions inappropriately. Labile affect has been linked to the following conditions:

A brain injury or an underlying condition does not always cause a labile affect. Other possible triggers for a labile affect include:  

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety 
  • Extreme stress

Identifying a Labile Affect 

No particular test can be used to diagnose a labile affect. If you’ve been experiencing frequent and sudden mood swings, however, you could have the condition. This disorder is often misdiagnosed as other conditions like depression or bipolar disorder. 

An underlying neurological or psychotic condition often causes a labile effect. It could also be caused by suffering a severe traumatic brain injury. To make a diagnosis, your doctor will order a set of routine tests to be done.

If an underlying condition is causing your labile affect, you’ll be treated for that condition. You should know that having occasional mood swings doesn’t mean you have a labile affect. 

When trying to diagnose labile affect, your doctor might ask you some of the following questions: 

  • Do you feel like you have no control over your emotional responses? 
  • Are you on any medications? 
  • Have you been diagnosed with any neurological disorders? 
  • Do you feel relief after expressing an emotion? 
  • Are you distressed by your emotional responses to certain situations? 

Treatment for a Labile Affect 

Labile affect can be a disrupting condition. People with this disorder are prone to sudden and extreme mood swings and could have violent tantrums. However, with the proper treatment, they can function relatively well in their day-to-day life.

Treatment for the condition typically depends on what’s causing it. If an underlying condition triggers it, treating the disorder could cause labile effect symptoms to diminish.

In mild cases, this condition might not even need treatment. Many people express inappropriate emotions in certain situations from time to time.

However, if you are experiencing labile moods often, speak to your doctor about it. Either medication or therapy could be used to treat a labile affect. Often a combination of both will be considered. 

Medication 

Medication is prescribed to treat labile affect per a person’s specific needs. Things like the severity of your conditions and other existing conditions you might have will be considered. The following medications are typically prescribed:

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants might be prescribed to help reduce the severity and frequency of labile moods. However, they won’t be prescribed in very high doses. Either tricyclic or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed. 
  • Nuedexta: Nuedexta (generic names: dextromethorphan, quinidine) is a medication typically used to treat heart arrhythmia (i.e., an irregular heartbeat). The FDA has also approved it to treat labile affect.

How to Cope With a Labile Affect 

Depending on its severity, a labile affect could go away with time. Paying closer attention to your emotional response to specific situations will help you cope with a labile affect.

If an underlying condition or brain injury doesn’t cause your mood affect, you might not need treatment, and it could go away with some coping strategies like these:

  • Practice breathing exercises: A great way to get a hold of your emotions is to practice breathing exercises. Taking slow and controlled breaths could decrease the severity of labile moods. 
  • Distract yourself: When going through a labile mood, you could also attempt to distract yourself. If you are in a situation you think might be triggering, you should remove yourself from that situation. 
  • Tell your close friends and family about what you are going through: Whether your labile affect is caused by an underlying condition or occurs from time to time, it’s essential to let the people around you be aware of your condition. This helps them understand what’s going on the next time you have a mood swing and learn how to help. 
  • Identify your triggers: With a labile affect, a switch in your mood might seem to come out of nowhere, but there are triggers in most cases. The next time you experience an uncharacteristic mood change, pay attention to what you are doing and the things around you. 
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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA): Symptoms, Causes, Treatments. April 23, 2019

  3. University of Michigan Health. Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA). August 4, 2020

  4. Cruz MP. Nuedexta for the treatment of pseudobulbar affect: a condition of involuntary crying or laughingP T. 2013;38(6):325-328.