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What Is Emotional Lability?

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Here’s what science says about causes, symptoms, and treatment of emotional lability.



Do you feel like your emotions swing all over the place? Once you start experiencing emotions, does it feel hard to stop? Or, do your emotions feel especially intense? Then you may be experiencing some form of emotional lability.


Emotional lability is a rapid and intense change in a person’s emotions or mood, typically inappropriate to the setting (Posner et al., 2014). For example, a person can suddenly start crying uncontrollably because of any strong emotion, even though they do not feel sad, frustrated, or happy. The term originally comes from the Latin word labilis, meaning “transient, fleeting, slippery” (World of Dictionary, n.d.), which highlights the dramatic and frequent shift between emotional experiences. Emotional lability can also be an over-expression of positive emotions, such as enthusiasm or energy, either disproportionate to the event or improper to the circumstance (Posner et al., 2014). One example is when a person suddenly laughs uncontrollably at a funeral.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) says that emotional lability appears as a symptom in various disorders, including:

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is a mental illness characterized by unstable moods, impulsive behavior, and problems in relationships.

  • Bipolar disorder (BP), which is characterized by episodes of intense mood swings, with depressive lows and manic highs. In Bipolar disorder, emotional lability often lasts longer (e.g., days-weeks; Posner et al., 2014)

  • Substance use, which can include alcohol or any illicit drugs.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a common psychiatric disorder defined by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder in which a person struggles to recover after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.

What Are Emotional Lability Symptoms?

  • Extreme emotions and sudden mood shifts. For example, those suffering from emotional lability experience intense feelings that change rapidly and often fluctuate through the day.

  • Improper reactions. If a person laughs uncontrollably at a funeral, it is a sign of emotional lability, as it refers to inappropriate reactions.

  • Difficulty controlling emotions. People who experience emotional lability may have little control of their feelings, which can make it more difficult to stop them.

​Emotional lability can negatively impact a person’s daily life and these behaviors can be confusing or embarrassing.

How to Deal With Emotional Lability

If you, or someone close to you, are experiencing emotional lability, here are a few things to do to better cope with it (Acquired Brain Injury Outreach Service, 2021).

  • Be aware. It is very important to be aware of what triggers emotional lability and to try to avoid them whenever possible. Some of these triggers include extreme fatigue, stress, or certain social situations or environments.

  • Take care of yourself. By taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, you may reduce tension and stress. Make sure that you get enough sleep every night, have a balanced diet, and exercise regularly. By doing something that makes you feel better, such as going on a stroll or spending quality time alone, you may increase your overall well-being.

  • Take a break. If you experience lability, it’s ok to take a step back for a few minutes to cope with the emotions.

  • Find a distraction. Sometimes it can be helpful to change the topic or to engage in a different activity to reduce stimulation and regain control of the emotions.

  • Acknowledge the feelings. It’s important to realize that sometimes you can’t control your emotions, and that’s OK. You just have to take care of yourself and practice self-compassion.

  • Educate. Other people can be confused or frightened about what they can’t understand. If you feel comfortable, you can let people know what happened.

  • Ask for help. It is important to remember that you are not alone in this. You can talk to your friends or family members, or ask for help from a professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist. ​

In summary, emotional lability can be a challenge. By understanding its roots, it may become easier to manage.


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References

  • ​Acquired Brain Injury Outreach Service (2021). Understanding Emotional Lability.

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

  • Posner, J., Kass, E., & Hulvershorn, L. (2014). Using stimulants to treat ADHD-related emotional lability. Current psychiatry reports, 16(10), 478.

  • World of Dictionary. (n.d.). Labilis. Retrieved November 15, 2021.

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