Emotional lability: what is it and what are its symptoms?

If anything characterizes emotions, it’s that they come and go without often having a specific cause that triggers them.. For example, a person may feel sad at a time when everything seems to indicate that they should be happy, or the reverse can also happen.

To put it another way, each person has a range of emotions that usually manifest relatively independently of their context. Some people tend to feel more joyful emotions, and others less. However, sometimes the variation in emotions can become very large. In this case we are talking about emotional lability.

What is emotional lability?

The concept of emotional lability refers to a tendency to change quickly and abruptly in terms of emotional state.

When this psychological phenomenon occurs, emotions vary almost as if following the movement of a pendulum, but not necessarily with this regularity between periods.

Duration of mood swings

Emotional lability can result in changes in emotion that are noticeable within hours, but it is also possible that this change appears after several days of manifesting the same emotion or a sequence of very similar emotions.

In the same way, sudden changes in emotions can occur for days until a time comes when emotional lability returns to its normal levels where there are no such abrupt changes.

Emotional lability as a symptom

Emotional lability can become a useful propensity to approach problems from different points of view. In fact, some degree of emotional lability is present in almost all people, as they all have a range of usual emotions.

However, in other cases it becomes so intense and sudden that beyond being a personality trait this may in itself be a type of symptom of a mental disorder.

The mental disorders in which emotional lability is most common are:

1. Major depression

In major depression, you can go from phases of emotional flattening and anhedonia to others in which there is a deep sadness that is felt very intensely. In these cases, mood swings can lead to relationship problems, especially when paired with intense outbreaks.

2. Bipolar disorder

It is a mood disorder characterized precisely by sudden changes in emotional states. Classically, in bipolar disorder, episodes of mania alternate, in which a feeling of euphoria and joy manifests itself, and episodes of depression. In short, in this disorder, emotional lability is one of the typical factors (as long as there is mania and depression.

3. Cyclothymia

While emotional lability is the quintessential symptom of bipolar disorder, its milder version, cyclothymia, presents it as a symptom as well. In these cases, the symptoms are not as intense as in other depressive disorders, these last longer.

The causes of emotional variation

When emotional lability is very intense and interferes with a person’s quality of life, It may be a symptom of a mental disorder or a neurological disorder. Although the causes will depend on each case, it is understood that the very intense emotional lability associated with psychological problems arises when the limbic system (located in the brain) begins to function abnormally.

Patients with epilepsy, for example, can develop emotional lability because seizures result from impaired general functioning of the brain.


It should be clear that emotional lability is not in itself a mental disorder, but a symptom, And for this reason, it is not treated directly from psychological or psychiatric interventions. Health measures that can reduce it include a diagnosis of possible mental disorders.

When the causes have nothing to do with a diagnosed mood disorder, treatment will be more difficult to establish. In addition, the use of psychotropic drugs that can be used to reduce the intensity of phases of emotional lability depends on the specialist medical staff who deal with each case.

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