What are mood swings, why do they happen, and how to deal with them?

People use the term “mood swing” when referring to intense emotions that fluctuate very often and quickly. Another term is “an emotional roller coaster,” which also describes the situation quite eloquently as the mood goes from happiness to deep sadness, from contentment to high irritability.

Sometimes, a person can detect the precise reason that caused such a shift in the way they feel mentally. For example, it could be some bad news. But oftentimes, people can’t understand what caused them to change the mood so dramatically and rapidly. Additionally, such quick and radical shifts in mood might be one of the symptoms of some mental health problems.

Primary causes

It’s normal to experience mood swings every now and then. You should get concerned if you suffer from this issue too often, or if the changes are so intense that you can’t function normally in your daily life. Serious mood shifts can affect all aspects of our lives, from work to personal relationships. Such changes might point towards some more complex conditions that require professional treatment.

Everyone goes through some internal changes as we grow as personalities, and that might cause mood swings. But also, we get affected by what’s going on around us. If something changes significantly in our life, it can impact our emotional state.

Sickness and injuries

Our physical and mental health are very interconnected. That’s why mood swings might be caused by some chronic illnesses such as dementia or injuries that impact our brain and nervous system. A concussion or a stroke can affect the brain, for instance.

There are other conditions, mostly neurological, that can be the reason for mood swings:

  • Thyroid disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis

Emotional development

As children grow up, they can go through mood swings merely because they don’t know yet how to control their emotions. These fluctuations are usually normal, as they’re just a part of a human growing up. But sometimes, rapid and frequent mood changes in children might indicate some mental health issue, learning disorder, or a physical problem.

Kids and teenagers with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) can have mood swings that interfere with their lives, disrupting relationships and studying.

When children become teens, changes in mood remain as a part of their life. But now, these fluctuations are caused by changes in hormones. During adolescence, the emotional instability peaks, and closer to young adulthood, it slowly stabilizes.

Allergy

It’s not the first reason one might think of, but seasonal allergies can cause mood swings. It all comes down to us, simply not feeling well. Sneezing, irritated skin, sore throat, eye itchiness, and other symptoms can make us moody, especially if the allergic episode doesn’t let us get the sleep we need.

Prolonged allergy causes fatigue that layers over all the symptoms. That can make us feel irritable, unable to concentrate, and frustrated.

Medical treatment

Some medications can impact the mood when we begin or stop taking them. Also, antidepressants and mood stabilizers can have emotional swings as one of their side effects. For instance, anabolic steroids can result in emotional instability and uncontrollable rage. Even though it’s a contradiction, it happens, and that’s something we should be aware of when using such medications. And despite that those pills should help us stabilize the mood, they worsen things even more.

It could be just our body getting used to the meds, and in this case, we just need to go through it. But also, mood shifts connected to medications may signal that these particular pills are not suitable precisely for us. Moreover, it could mean that the professional who prescribed these meds has made a mistake when establishing a diagnosis.

Rather often, people with bipolar disorder become misdiagnosed and treated for depression. It’s a huge issue because some antidepressants can cause a manic episode if a person with bipolar disorder takes them.

Hormonal disbalance

The hormonal system is very finely-tuned, and even the slightest disruption can lead to significant issues, including unexpected changes in mood. Yet, some hormonal fluctuations are normal — for example, changes that occur during the menstrual cycle. Pregnancy and menopause also often cause emotional instability as hormones begin to fluctuate rapidly. Birth control pills are another possible cause of emotional shifts because they impact our hormone levels.

Still, mood swings should be completely justified by menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause. These causes might just highlight the mental issues we already are struggling with. So if the shifts are too intense, that’s the reason to be cautious.

But hormonal disbalance doesn’t come down to estrogen that was the primary reason for emotional instability in the situations described above. We have quite a wide set of hormones, and issues with either of them can lead to mood swings.

Emotional instability and mental disorders

Mood changes can be totally normal as they may be caused by stress or some issues with physical health. Yet, they can be a very distinctive sign of a mental issue. Emotional swings are a frequent symptom of many diseases. For instance, the term “emotional lability” is usually used to describe those intense, frequent, and quick emotional changes people with bipolar disorder go through.

Nevertheless, mood swings can characterize not just mental diseases. They can be a symptom caused by traumas or Alzheimer’s and other illnesses. Yet, in the case of mental and physical diseases, emotional lability will come along with other symptoms.

That’s why if mood swings are just one issue among several others you experience frequently enough for them to disrupt your daily life, it should be a reason for you to talk to a doctor. They will try to find out the main disorder that causes all those issues.

Depression

This mental condition rather often comes with mood swings despite that we tend to believe that depressed people are sad all the time. But their emotions can fluctuate from sadness to a short spike of cheerfulness to anger and irritability. Sure, those feelings tilt towards negative ones, but it doesn’t mean that a depressed person can’t just become happy for a short amount of time. Then the drop-down to sadness will be especially painful.

Mood swings are not the only symptom of depression.

Even though the exact set of issues differs for every person, we can outline the most frequently met ones:

  • Sadness
  • Feeling hopeless and worthless
  • Anhedonia — inability to enjoy activities
  • Sleeping too much
  • Inability to fall asleep
  • Hyperactivity
  • General fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate and make decisions
  • Suicidal thoughts

Because of the mood swings, depression is often confused with cyclothymia, which is a condition that’s also similar to bipolar disorder. People with this illness experience fluctuations between hypomania and depressive mood.

Bipolar disorder

This disorder is characterized by mood fluctuations as the primary symptom. But the emotional lability in this situation is much more vivid and dramatic as people with bipolar disorder jump from mania to depression. They come as episodes, and depending on the type of it, each episode is characterized by different symptoms.

For example, those experiencing a mania might:

  • Be overly energized
  • Talk very fast or be very chatty
  • Make quick and impulsive decisions
  • Show risky behavior
  • Not feeling tired despite the lack of sleep
  • Be more motivated and work-focused

The depressive episode is characterized by:

  • Hopelessness and feeling worthless
  • Crying and sadness
  • Anhedonia
  • Lack of focus
  • Sleeping more
  • Feeling tired
  • Experiencing issues with falling asleep
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior

It depends on a specific person for how long the episodes will last. Some may shift from mania to depression even daily, while others will stay in one kind of episode for months or even years. Just several years ago, it was very difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder, let alone treating it. But today, doctors can do a better job at it, thanks to recent research and new medications.

Borderline personality disorder

BPD — borderline personality disorder — is also a mental health illness often characterized by mood shifts. The emotional fluctuations are very intense and last from a couple of hours to a couple of days. A person with BPD is heavily affected by everything that happens to them and around them. And every emotional response is very deep and vivid.

Besides mood swings there are other symptoms of borderline personality disorder:

  • Risky and self-destructive behavior (unsafe sex, impulsive decisions, substance abuse, etc.)
  • Exaggerated response to life events
  • Restlessness and emptiness
  • Self-harm and suicidal behavior
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Anger issues
  • Dissociation

Lifestyle factors that may lead to mood swings

Even mentally healthy people can experience emotional instability because of mistakes in their lifestyle. And despite that numerous things can result in mood swings, there are some major factors — diet, lack of sleep, and substance abuse.

Restrictive diet

A human being is very reliant on nutrition. That’s why it’s important for us to eat as much as our body needs. Restrictive diets often lead to intense ups and lows in blood sugar levels at the very least. Eventually, malnourishment results in more serious issues.

When we are hungry, the blood sugar level is low. This is known as hypoglycemia and can make us angry, irritable, sad, anxious, and so on. Also, digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease can lead to emotional swings because these conditions disrupt our body’s ability to intake nutrients.

Finally, the withdrawal syndrome is not just about alcohol and drugs. We may experience it when we couldn’t enjoy that morning cup of coffee or that candy. In this case, we have caffeine or sugar withdrawal.

Sleep deprivation

If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we will suffer from mood shifts and even more serious psychiatric symptoms. If we don’t sleep well, all the processes in our body and especially the brain gets impaired. Then we start experiencing major issues with all the systems.

Mood swings might also appear if we shift from one regime to another. For example, we went from being an owl to becoming a morning person. Or we moved across the globe, and now the nighttime comes during the period we’re used to considering the daytime. In this case, we deal with the circadian rhythm that governs when we want to sleep and when we’re energized.

Substance Abuse

Different substances heavily affect the way we experience the world, think, and feel. That’s why substance abuse can cause significant emotional instability, especially when it’s impossible to get and use the desired substance. A withdrawal syndrome also may cause mood swings.

That might happen not just with alcohol and drugs used for pleasure. People who take prescribed medications can either overdo the drug or suffer from withdrawal when they stop using it.

Besides mood swings, substance abuse brings irrational behavior and suicidal thoughts and actions.

Restrictive diet

Different substances heavily affect the way we experience the world, think, and feel. That’s why substance abuse can cause significant emotional instability, especially when it’s impossible to get and use the desired substance. A withdrawal syndrome also may cause mood swings.

This might happen not just with alcohol and drugs used for pleasure. People who take prescribed medications also can either overdo the drug or suffer from withdrawal when they stop using it.

Besides mood swings, substance abuse brings irrational behavior and suicidal thoughts and actions.

How to cope with mood swings

It’s often not easy to deal with emotional fluctuations, especially if they disrupt our daily life and relationships. If the swings are very intense and happen rather often, you should discuss them with your doctor. They might be a symptom of some more complex issue that needs to be treated.

In this case, a therapist might prescribe mood stabilizers, therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, or counseling. Combined, meds and therapy can improve mental health significantly.

If you experience bearable mood shifts that happen not often, it’s easier to manage them. The first step would be to detect what’s causing them — it might be some stress, lack of sleep, a restrictive diet. Then you should try to eliminate the harmful factor in your life. If you can’t do that by yourself, a therapist might be helpful.

In general, you can obtain some useful habits that will eventually lead to you feeling emotionally stable:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Generally healthy and nourishing diet
  • Getting enough quality sleep
  • Addressing substance use if there is any
  • Learning to manage daily stress

The bottom line

Mood swings are normal if they don’t impact our lives severely. But if the emotional stability seems very hard to reach, that’s something you need to discuss with your doctor. If there are any mental issues that cause mood fluctuations, the professional will be able to address them to improve the way you feel.