What Is Emotional Lability?

10 April, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana
Affectivity includes our state of mind, our emotions and our feelings. When this is altered for any reason, phenomena such as emotional lability appear.

Emotional lability is an alteration in our affectivity. Affectivity is that part of our mental life which controls states such as sensations, emotions, mood, humor, feelings, etc.

Thus, our affectivity would be all the states that influence or motivate us, in one way or another. But what happens when the regulation of these states, or the states themselves, are altered? This is when we enter the field of the psychopathology of affectivity.

Emotional lability is part of this area of psychopathology, and it manifests itself through sudden and disproportionate changes in our emotional state.

People who suffer from it express variations in their emotions that can last for minutes, hours, or even days (although these are usually changes that occur quickly and abruptly). Would you like to know more about this concept? Read on and we’ll tell you!

“Take care of your own emotions and never underestimate them.”

-Robert Henri-

What is emotional lability?

Emotional lability is common.
A person with this problem may feel very unhappy.

Emotional lability is an alteration of affectivity, which produces a series of changes in mood. These changes occur rapidly and alternately, and may (or may not) be caused by external stimuli.

The emotions of these “new” moods are usually short-lived, and the emotionally lazy subject can quickly switch from one emotion to the other. For example, it could involve moving from sadness and crying to joy and laughter, very quickly.

Thus, the fundamental characteristic of this phenomenon is the speed with which the person’s mood or emotions change. These rapid and abrupt changes can make the person feel very uncomfortable. They may feel “overwhelmed” or unable to cope with their emotions in a healthy way.

How long do mood swings last?

The duration of the “new” emotion will depend very much on the person. As we mentioned before, these can be changes that last minutes, hours, or even days. What characterizes emotional lability isn’t so much how long the person experiences the emotion, but the fact that the change from one emotion to the other occurs quickly and abruptly.

These sudden changes in emotional state can continue for days, and then, eventually, a day will come when the person “stabilizes.” However, emotional lability will appear again sooner or later (especially in certain psychological disorders).

Disorders where emotional lability appears

Emotional lability can appear as an isolated symptom in the subject or as a consequence of some previous disorder. In the first case, the person doesn’t have any underlying mental disorder that can explain this alteration.

In the second, the lability would appear as part of an underlying psychological disorder. Here are some of the disorders where emotional lability is most likely to appear:

Major depression

Emotional lability can appear in major depression. In this case, the person would go, for example, from phases of feeling emotionally flat and anhedonia to others marked by deep sadness.

These changes can create a lot of instability and suffering, as well as alterations in social relationships (especially when there’s an intense outbreak of lability).

Cyclothymia

Cyclothymia is considered to be the “mild” version of bipolar disorder. It’s a mood disorder that involves alternating depressive episodes with hypomanic episodes, where these are repeated cyclically and alternately.

One of the main symptoms of cyclothymia is the emotional lability that we explained, as the person goes from one emotional state to another very quickly and intensely.

Bipolar disorder

Emotional lability can also appear in bipolar disorder, although it should be clear here that being bipolar is not the same as being emotionally labile. With bipolar, we’re talking about a disorder, and in the second, of a symptom or a characteristic of the person.

Other disorders

Other disorders where emotional lability appears are epilepsy (in this case, there’s an alteration in the global functioning of the brain) or alterations where the limbic system is involved (closely related to emotional regulation).

Phenomena related to emotional lability

Emotional lability shouldn’t be confused with other affective disorders that may seem similar but aren’t the same. Let’s have a look at their differences:

Affective incontinence

Emotional lability can appear alongside affective incontinence. In this case, we’re talking about an excessive lack of control of affective expression. A person with affective incontinence can’t control their emotions, and is “overwhelmed” by them.

The person may feel that, in reality, their emotions aren’t that intense but, nevertheless, they’re unable to manage them. Affective incontinence appears in disorders such as intellectual disability or in some organic diseases such as dementia. It also appears in some mental disorders.

Affective ambivalence

Emotional lability is disabling.
Internal conflicts often surface during episodes of emotional lability.

Another alteration of affectivity that we shouldn’t confuse with emotional lability is affective ambivalence. Affective ambivalence implies the coexistence of positive and negative feelings regarding the same experience or situation.

It isn’t the case that emotions or feelings are altered (as in the case of emotional lability), but that they coexist (that is, they appear at the same time). This alteration occurs in disorders such as schizophrenia or some personality disorders.

Affective stiffness

Affective rigidity is an alteration that affects the range and the ability to modulate emotions and affection. Thus, the person is able to manifest certain emotions, but can’t modulate them, and, as a result, they persist regardless of the situation.

It’s a form of affective inflexibility that we shouldn’t confuse with indifference. In the latter, we’re talking about a non-existence of affections.

Affective rigidity appears, for example, in schizophrenia (especially in disorganized type schizophrenia), in depression, in manic episodes of bipolar disorder, in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), etc.

The treatment of emotional lability

Psychotherapy can be helpful in treating emotional lability, especially when it appears as a symptom or in isolation. Here different emotional regulation techniques are used, as well as cognitive techniques such as cognitive restructuring or cognitive defusion.

When lability appears as a consequence of some underlying mental disorder, it will be important to address the disorder with the most validated treatment for it.

Pharmacotherapy

Drug therapy is used primarily in people with depression (antidepressants), a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia (antipsychotics), or an anxiety disorder (anxiolytics).

In these cases, of course, it should always be the psychiatrist who determines whether medical treatment is appropriate or not (and of what type). It should be clear here that drugs don’t directly “fix” emotional lability, but, rather, help to improve the patient’s overall disorder.

In this sense, they can help reduce arousal levels (anxiety), psychotic symptoms, etc. This, in turn, could have a positive impact on emotion regulation.

Accompanying emotional lability

Emotional lability can cause a lot of suffering, in addition to a feeling of confusion in the person suffering from it. When it’s part of a previous mental disorder, it should be cared for and treated taking into account the whole patient and their disorder.

To help a person with emotional lability, it’s best to investigate the causes and try to accompany them in their mood swings in the best possible way.

We can also encourage them to ask for help. As always, asking for professional help will mean a turning point that can offer the person a safe place where they can be themselves.

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