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What Does it Mean to be Emotionally Unstable?

February 12, 2023

9 min.

People who experience emotional instability may have difficulty regulating their emotions and may experience frequent mood swings, ranging from extreme sadness and despair to euphoria and excitement.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Table of Contents

Emotional instability refers to a pattern of behavior characterized by intense, unpredictable, and sometimes rapid changes in mood, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. People who experience emotional instability may have difficulty regulating their emotions and may experience frequent mood swings, ranging from extreme sadness and despair to euphoria and excitement.

Some people may be more likely to experience emotional instability than others due to various factors, including genetics, environmental factors, and life experiences. Emotional instability can be challenging to manage, and it can have a significant impact on an individual’s life. However, with appropriate treatment and support, people with emotional instability can learn to manage their emotions more effectively and improve their quality of life.

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Is emotional instability a mental health disorder?

Emotional instability can manifest in different ways, such as impulsive behavior, self-destructive tendencies, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. It can also be associated with certain mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, bipolar disorder, behavioral issues, and anxiety disorders.

While emotional instability is not, on its own, a mental health disorder, it can be a symptom or feature of several mental health disorders, including borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and some anxiety disorders. In some cases, emotional instability may also be a part of other mental health conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one of the most common mental health conditions associated with emotional instability. BPD is characterized by intense emotional reactions, difficulty regulating emotions, unstable self-image, and impulsive behavior.

Bipolar disorder is another mental health condition that may involve emotional instability. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of manic or hypomanic episodes, characterized by high energy, impulsivity, and elated mood, followed by periods of depression or low mood.

Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder may also involve emotional instability, with symptoms such as excessive worry, fear, and intense anxiety.

It’s essential to seek professional help if you’re experiencing emotional instability, as it may be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition that requires treatment. A mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis and develop an effective treatment plan to help manage the symptoms of emotional instability and improve overall mental health and well-being.

What are the possible causes of emotional instability?

There can be various possible causes of emotional instability, and some people may be more prone to emotional instability due to factors such as genetics, upbringing, life experiences, or underlying mental health conditions. Here are some common factors that can contribute to emotional instability:


Research suggests that genetics can play a role in emotional instability, with some studies showing that certain genetic variations may increase the risk of developing mental health conditions that involve emotional instability, such as bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. One such study includes a 2021 Molecular Psychiatry study, which found that “relatives of individuals with a diagnosis of BPD had a higher risk of receiving a BPD-diagnosis than those without familial vulnerability”. Additionally, a 2021 Nature Genetics study found “high but imperfect genetic correlation between bipolar disorder type I and II”, again suggesting the role of genetics in developing mental health disorders that involve emotional instability.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors such as childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, or trauma can affect the development of emotional regulation skills and lead to difficulties in managing emotions in adulthood. These experiences can affect the development of emotional regulation skills and lead to difficulties in managing emotions in adulthood. Additionally, life stressors such as extreme financial difficulties, intense relationship problems, or debilitating health issues can also contribute to emotional instability, particularly in individuals who are already vulnerable due to genetics or environmental factors. It’s important to note that emotional instability is not a personal weakness, and anyone can experience it, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Mental health conditions

Mental health conditions can contribute to emotional instability by affecting the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder can all cause significant changes in mood and emotions. For example, depression can cause feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that can lead to emotional instability. Anxiety disorders can cause excessive worry and fear that can also contribute to emotional instability. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that range from episodes of mania to periods of deep depression. Borderline personality disorder is associated with intense emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety which can be difficult for the individual to regulate.

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Substance use disorder

Substance use and substance use disorders can contribute to emotional instability in several ways. Firstly, drugs and alcohol can alter brain chemistry, leading to changes in mood, behavior, and emotions. Substance use can also lead to the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Additionally, substance use can cause relationship problems, financial difficulties, and legal issues, which can all contribute to emotional instability. Withdrawal symptoms from substance use disorder can also cause emotional instability including irritability, anxiety and depression.

Hormonal imbalances

Hormonal imbalances can affect mood regulation and contribute to emotional instability, particularly in women during certain times such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Imbalances in estrogen and progesterone levels can cause mood swings, irritability, and depression in women during their menstrual cycle or menopause. Similarly, imbalances in thyroid hormones can lead to anxiety, irritability, and depression. In some cases, hormonal imbalances can also be caused by underlying medical conditions or medications, which may require treatment to restore hormonal balance and improve emotional well-being.

Physical health conditions

Physical health conditions can contribute to emotional instability in several ways. Chronic pain, for example, can cause feelings of frustration, anger, and hopelessness that can lead to emotional instability. Additionally, physical health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes can cause significant stress and anxiety which may also contribute to emotional instability. In some cases, physical health conditions may also affect brain function and lead to changes in mood and emotions. For example, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis can cause depression and anxiety due to changes in brain chemistry.


While medications are often prescribed to help manage symptoms of mental and physical health conditions, they can also contribute to emotional instability as a side effect. Certain medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers can cause changes in mood and emotions that may lead to emotional instability. For example, some antidepressants can cause agitation, irritability, or anxiety which can worsen emotional instability. Similarly, antipsychotic medications used to treat conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can cause side effects like restlessness or difficulty concentrating that may also contribute to emotional instability.

Emotional instability can stem from various intricate causes. Consulting a mental health expert can aid in identifying the root causes of emotional instability and devising practical coping mechanisms to regulate emotions, leading to better mental health and well-being.

How can emotional instability affect a person’s daily life?

Unchecked emotional instability can have far-reaching consequences that significantly impact a person’s daily life. These consequences can negatively affect their overall quality of life, making it difficult to maintain healthy relationships and perform well at work or school. Here are some examples of how emotional instability can manifest in daily life:

Difficulty regulating emotions

Emotional instability can cause intense and unpredictable mood swings, making it challenging for a person to manage their emotions effectively. This can lead to frequent outbursts, impulsivity, and difficulty with interpersonal relationships.

Impaired decision-making

Emotional instability can impair a person’s ability to make sound decisions, leading to impulsive and risky behavior. This can lead to negative consequences such as financial problems, legal issues, and relationship difficulties.

Relationship problems

Emotional instability can lead to problems in relationships, as the intense emotions and mood swings can be challenging for loved ones to handle. This can lead to conflicts, arguments, and a breakdown in communication.

Social isolation

People with emotional instability may withdraw from social activities or relationships due to fear of rejection or judgment, leading to social isolation and loneliness.

Poor work or academic performance

Emotional instability can affect a person’s ability to concentrate and focus, leading to poor performance at work or in school.

Physical health problems

Emotional instability can lead to physical health problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and weakened immune function.

Substance abuse

Emotional instability can increase the risk of substance abuse, as individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their emotions.

A young, emotionally unstable young woman stares directly into the camera

What are the potential consequences of unchecked emotional instability?

Unchecked emotional instability can have significant consequences on a person’s overall well-being and can affect various aspects of their life. Some potential consequences include difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, decreased job performance and productivity, increased risk-taking behavior, physical health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, and even mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It’s essential to seek help from a mental health professional if you’re experiencing emotional instability, as unchecked emotional instability can lead to severe consequences that can impact a person’s overall well-being and quality of life.

Treatment options for Emotional instability


One of the most common treatment approaches for emotional instability is psychotherapy, which involves talking to a mental health professional about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Several different types of psychotherapy may be helpful, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy. CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors, while DBT focuses on developing skills to manage intense emotions. Psychodynamic therapy aims to explore underlying unconscious conflicts and patterns of behavior.


In addition to psychotherapy, medication can also be an effective treatment option for emotional instability. Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotic medications may be prescribed, depending on the specific diagnosis and symptoms. It is important to note that medication should always be taken under the guidance of a mental health professional, as there can be side effects and risks associated with certain medications.


Other treatment options for emotional instability include self-help techniques such as exercise, meditation, and relaxation techniques. These techniques can help individuals manage stress and improve their overall mood. Additionally, support groups can provide a sense of community and understanding, which can be helpful for individuals struggling with emotional instability.

Support for emotional instability at Charlie Health

It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of emotional instability. Mental health professionals are trained to diagnose and treat various mental health conditions and can provide support and guidance throughout the treatment process. With the right treatment and support, individuals with emotional instability can learn to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

Emotional instability can be challenging to deal with, but there are several treatment options available to help individuals manage their symptoms. It is important to seek professional help if needed and work with a mental health professional to develop an individualized treatment plan. With the right treatment and support, individuals with emotional instability can lead happy and healthy lives. Charlie Health’s virtual IOP combines individual therapy, supported groups, and family therapy to comprehensively and effectively treat people struggling with severe mental health issues. If you are struggling with the current level of care you’re receiving or need assistance as you return home from an inpatient setting. Our Admissions Team is available 24/7 to discuss your needs and goals. Reach out today.

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