What Is Emotional Lability?

Woman crying with head in hands.

Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

What Is Emotional Lability?

People with high emotional lability are often described as "sensitive" or having "thin skin."

They may quickly transition between positive emotions like happiness, joy, excitement, enthusiasm, and amusement. But they also tend to experience negative feelings such as sadness more deeply than others.

Emotional Lability

Emotional lability is the tendency to shift rapidly and dramatically between different emotional states.

The term comes from the Latin word labilis meaning "to totter, sway, or move in an unstable manner." Other terms for emotional lability include labile mood, labile affect, and reactivity.

Emotional lability is commonly seen in people with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder but can also occur in conditions like bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emotional lability is different than moodiness or someone who has a "short fuse." People with high emotional lability experience sudden, dramatic changes that aren't triggered by something specific. Their feelings fluctuate rapidly and unpredictably. They may feel fine one minute, and then angry or sad the next without any warning.

These sudden shifts in mood can be extremely frustrating for family and friends who struggle to understand what triggers these changes and how they might respond when a person with emotional lability is upset.

History of Emotional Lability

The term emotional lability was first introduced by the French psychologist Guillaume Duchenne, author of the book The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression. He used it to describe people who cry easily but also noted other types of emotional lability including laughing, blushing, and trembling.

Later, psychologist Peter McKeller introduced a new concept by identifying individuals with "labile mood" and describing them as having a "labile temperament." McKeller observed that people with labile mood experienced significant changes in self-esteem, sadness, happiness, and anger.

In the 1970s, researchers began to expand on this idea of emotional lability by studying its effects in emotionally sensitive or easily upset children. Not long after, emotional lability was classified as one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Signs of Emotional Lability

The following are common signs of emotional lability include:

  • Intense emotions and rapid mood changes. People with high emotional lability experience intense feelings that shift quickly and change frequently throughout the day, even when there's no apparent reason for these shifts to occur.
  • Inappropriate reactions to events that could affect moods. Emotional lability can also involve inappropriate responses. For example, a person with high emotional lability may laugh at a funeral or become severely depressed if their sports team loses.
  • Difficulty controlling emotions. People with high emotional lability are unable to control the intensity of their feelings. They can't "snap out" of negative moods quickly even when they want to which can make it harder to maintain friendships and relationships.

Types of Emotional Lability

There are two common types of emotional lability:

  1. Dysphoric/labile mood. This type is characterized by sudden, rapid changes in mood. For example, a person may feel happy and excited, then grow depressed or sad without any warning. These shifts can be unpredictable and happen more than twice a week.
  2. Manic/hypomanic episodes. These episodes involve sudden, rapid, and persistent changes in mood that last for several days. This type of emotional lability is associated with bipolar disorder and can include feelings of euphoria, irritability, or agitation, along with reduced sleep, racing thoughts, and risky behavior. People who experience these shifts may also engage in reckless behavior such as spending sprees or taking on many new projects.

Causes of Emotional Lability

  • Pseudobulbar affect. This is a type of emotional lability that may be caused by brain damage or neurological illnesses. It can be triggered by traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other health issues. People with this condition may also experience uncontrolled laughing or crying.
  • Mood disorders. This includes conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression.
  • Medication side effects. Some medications can cause emotional lability, including certain antidepressants.
  • Substance use. Alcohol and illicit drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, and PCP can all lead to emotional lability.
  • Borderline personality disorder. People with this condition often experience rapid mood swings and outbursts that can affect their personal, social, and professional relationships. They may also engage in risky behavior such as promiscuity or spending sprees when they're feeling positive.

Impact of Emotional Lability

People with emotional lability often feel as if everyone around them is better or more successful than they are. They may be envious of others who have friends, relationships, or people who respect them.

People with emotional lability may avoid social activities or professional events because they know that their moods could get in the way. This can affect a person's sense of self-worth, self-confidence, and belief in themselves.

Being unable to control the intensity of emotions can also impair day-to-day life. For example, people with emotional lability may find it challenging to focus on tasks or stay organized. They may also have problems controlling their emotions when they experience bad news, which can cause them distress and anxiety that makes the situation even worse.

Treatment for Emotional Lability

Treatment for emotional lability depends on the underlying cause. For example, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help with mood swings related to depression or bipolar disorder.

In some cases, treatment might involve training in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. Therapists can also teach the person to deal with their feelings in a healthy, constructive way.

If your loved one is struggling with emotional lability, make sure they get help. Talk to them about getting diagnosed and working on treatment options that can have a positive impact on their life. If you're experiencing these symptoms yourself, talk to your doctor about your options.

Coping With Emotional Lability

Coping with emotional lability can be challenging. However, there are healthy ways to deal with this problem:

  • Do something that makes you feel good. Whether this is going for a walk with a friend or spending time alone, make sure you practice self-care and self-compassion.
  • Take a break if necessary. Take some time away from people and situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Tell yourself the truth about your feelings. Realize that your emotions sometimes aren't under your control, and do what's best for you despite them.
  • Take care of yourself at home and work. Get enough sleep, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly.
  • Remember that people are on your side. Don't be afraid to ask for help from friends and family who care about you. This can make a huge difference when it comes to dealing with emotional lability effectively.

A Word From Verywell

If the symptoms of emotional lability cause problems for you in social or professional settings, talk to a therapist about treatment options. If you're worried about someone else's mood swings and outbursts, talk to them about getting help from professionals who can provide support.

8 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.
  1. G -B Duchenne. The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression. Cambridge University Press ; Paris; 2006.

  2. Mckellar P. Imagination and Thinking: A Psychological Analysis. Cohen & West; 1957.

  3. Ahmed A, Simmons Z. Pseudobulbar affect: prevalence and managementTher Clin Risk Manag. 2013;9:483-489. doi:10.2147/TCRM.S53906

  4. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association; 2013. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

  5. Barbuti M, Pacchiarotti I, Vieta E, et al. Antidepressant-induced hypomania/mania in patients with major depression: Evidence from the BRIDGE-II-MIX studyJ Affect Disord. 2017;219:187-192. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.05.035

  6. Revadigar N, Gupta V. Substance Induced Mood Disorders. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555887/

  7. Reich DB, Zanarini MC, Fitzmaurice G. Affective lability in bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorderCompr Psychiatry. 2012;53(3):230-237. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2011.04.003

  8. Iannaccone S, Ferini-Strambi L. Pharmacologic treatment of emotional labilityClin Neuropharmacol. 1996;19(6):532-535. doi:10.1097/00002826-199619060-00008

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.