What Is Mood Lability?

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A labile mood is characterized by emotions that shift quickly, drastically, and uncontrollably. Labile mood is typically associated with an underlying health condition. It can be a symptom of a mental health condition, or it can occur with conditions that affect the brain.

This article discusses mood lability—what it is, what causes it, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.

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What Is a Labile Mood?

It's normal to experience various emotions throughout the day, but these shifts in mood are typically related to things that happen or thoughts that are occurring.

People with labile mood often experience extreme emotional reactions that may not relate to their current situation. These emotions are very strong and can seem to come out of nowhere. Oftentimes, these severe mood changes can interfere with daily activities.

Other Names for Labile Mood

Other names for labile mood include emotional lability, labile affect, emotional incontinence, pathological laughing and crying, pseudobulbar affect, and involuntary emotional expression disorder (IEED).

Symptoms of Labile Mood

Strong emotional reactions that shift rapidly are the main symptom of labile mood. These can include:

  • Uncontrollable laughter
  • Crying (without a specific cause)
  • Less tolerance for frustration
  • Overreaction to situations

What Causes Labile Mood?

Mood lability commonly occurs with certain mental health and medical conditions, including:

People with brain injury and other neurological conditions, such as stroke, dementia, ALS, Parkinson's disease, and MS can develop a specific type of mood lability called pseudobulbar affect. These medical conditions affect the way the brain controls emotion, which leads to unpredictable outbursts of laughing or crying.

How Is Labile Mood Diagnosed?

Mental health conditions that cause labile mood are diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This clinical handbook gives mental health professionals specific criteria for determining whether or not a mental health condition is present.

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) Is diagnosed using history and mental status examinations. Sometimes standardized questionnaires and scales are used. Certain criteria that might support the diagnosis of PBA include:

  • Emotional outbursts that are unrelated to the current situation
  • Emotions being expressed do not reflect how the person is actually feeling
  • Emotional episodes follow a pattern of ramping up, then slowly decreasing
  • Episodes cause significant distress and interfere with daily functioning
  • Symptoms are not a side effect of medications

How Is Mood Lability Treated?

Mood lability that is not severe might not require treatment. However, for many people, symptoms significantly interfere with daily life. Treatment for labile mood can include medications and therapy.

Medications

Medications are generally targeted to any underlying condition that might be contributing to the mood lability. Mood stabilizers are used for mood lability related to bipolar disorders. Antidepressants are one type of medication used to treat mood lability related to depressive and anxiety disorders and PBA. These medications change levels of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters that help manage emotions.

Antidepressants can help decrease the intensity and frequency of mood changes. Commonly prescribed medications include Remeron (mirtazapine), Wellbutrin (bupropion), and Luvox (fluvoxamine).

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is also treated with a medication called Neudexta (dextromethorphan-quinidine), which reduces symptoms of mood lability.

Therapy

Counseling is very beneficial for people who live with mood lability related to certain types of conditions. Two types of therapy that are used include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on helping a person change their negative thought patterns and behaviors that can contribute to mood shifts.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of therapy that uses a combination of mindfulness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation skills to help manage certain conditions that contribute to mood lability—particularly certain personality disorders.

How to Cope With Mood Lability

Several coping techniques can improve quality of life for a person with mood lability. These include:

  • Talking about it: Discussing your condition with the people around you can reduce the "element of surprise" that can occur with sudden mood changes.
  • Ignoring it: Focusing on your uncontrollable symptoms can make them worse. Distracting yourself with another activity can help.
  • Identifying and avoiding triggers (when possible): Certain situations can make emotional swings more likely when you have labile mood. These can include: fatigue, feeling stressed or anxious, funny or sad movies/books/situations, public speaking, and talking about stressful events.
  • Walking away: A change in environment can help you regain control of your emotions during a mood shift.

Summary

Labile mood refers to unpredictable, uncontrollable, and rapid shifts in emotions. This is most commonly caused by mental health conditions, such as bipolar and personality disorders, and medical conditions that affect the parts of the brain that control emotions. Labile mood causes uncontrollable laughter, crying, irritability, and other emotional overreactions. Treatment includes medication and therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Living with mood lability can make a person feel shame or embarrassment. If someone you care about is living with this condition, understand that the behavior is out of their control. When mood shifts occur, provide support without making a "big deal" over the outburst.

If you are personally living with mood lability, know that you are not alone. Being open with family and friends about your condition can help draw less attention to your mood shifts when they do occur. Talk to a therapist about ways to cope with your symptoms and improve your quality of life. For additional support and resources, consider joining a support group.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
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