Emotionally Unstable

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated December 5, 2021

emotionally unstable anxiety symptoms

Emotionally Unstable (emotional instability, dramatic mood swings) is a common symptom of anxiety disorder, including anxiety and panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and others.

Many people who struggle with anxiety have emotional symptoms, such as what can feel like emotions that are out of control.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and emotions that feel unstable.

Symptom Descriptions

Common descriptions for the Emotionally Unstable anxiety symptom include:

  • Your emotions feel unstable, like they could flip from one extreme to the other at any moment.
  • Your emotions feel unsettled and change all the time.
  • It feels like your emotions are extreme and flip back and forth without reason.
  • You’re having dramatic swings in your emotions.
  • It feels like your emotions are erratic and unpredictable.
  • It feels like you can’t predict your emotions like you used to.
  • It feels like your emotions are uncontrollable and “all over the map,” from one extreme to the other.

This symptom is often referred to as “mood swings.”

This symptom can occur rarely, frequently, or persistently.

Emotional instability can occur before, during, or after an increase in other anxiety symptoms or by itself.

It can precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur "out of the blue" and for no reason.

It can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.

This symptom can change from day to day, moment to moment, or be a constant background to your struggle with anxiety disorder.

This symptom can seem more noticeable when undistracted, resting, and have time to think.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including feeling like impending doom symptoms.

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Causes

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Click the link for Additional Medical Advisory Information.

1. Stress response

Anxious behavior, activates the stress response, which prepares the body for immediate action – to either fight or flee.[1][2]

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about its many changes.

A part of these changes includes simulating the Limbic system to be more sensitive and reactive to danger.

Since the Limbic System also plays an important role in our emotions, increased activity can make our emotions unstable.

The higher the degree of stress response, the more impact it can have on our emotions.

As long as the stress response is active, we can have unstable emotions.

2. Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur occasionally, the body can recover relatively quickly from the changes caused by the stress response.

When they occur too frequently, such as from overly anxious behavior, the body can't completely recover. Incomplete recovery can lead to “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants.[3][4][5]

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body and how we feel.

Since hyperstimulation can affect the body the same way as an active stress response, hyperstimulation can cause chronic emotional symptoms, including emotional instability.

Recovery Support members can read a more technical explanation about hyperstimulation and its effects in chapter 14.

The above changes alone can cause unstable emotions. But that’s not all.

Research has shown a tight mind/body connection. Since emotions are directed by how we think, and the body’s physical health can influence how we think, our emotions are caused by a complex combination of biological and psychological factors.

For example, some of the biological factors include hormone fluctuations, neurotransmitter levels, energy levels, blood sugar levels, stress levels, and the state of our physical health, to name a few.

Some of the psychological factors include our beliefs, preferences, attitudes, how to behave (think and act), and habituated behavior patterns.

Because the states of our physical and psychological health influence each other, many variables influence our emotions.

For example, hyperstimulation can negatively affect our physiological and psychological well-being. As such, the stability and predictability of our emotions can be strongly affected.

Moreover, hyperstimulation is especially hard on the nervous system, which can also dramatically affect emotions.

As well, an erratic behaving nervous system can also affect hormone levels. Fluctuating hormone levels can also cause unstable emotions, which can feel like dramatic and uncontrollable mood swings.

Any combination of the above factors can make a person feel emotionally unstable.

Hyperstimulation is a common cause of unstable emotions.

3. Behavior

Anxious behavior can also cause unstable emotions, such as:

  • All of nothing thinking
  • Catastrophizing
  • Overreacting
  • Fear of having a serious mental health problem
  • Fear of having a serious medical health problem
  • Overwhelmed attitude
  • Fear of the strong feelings of anxiety
  • Crisis living
  • Negative role play
  • Over responsibility
  • People-pleasing

To name a few.

Unhealthy anxious behavior is another common cause of feeling emotionally unstable.

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4. Other Factors

Other factors can stress the body, causing and contributing to this symptom, such as:

Medication

Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can mimic, cause, and aggravate anxiety symptoms, including emotional symptoms.

Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about your medication if you aren't sure if its playing a role in your symptoms, including this one.

Visit our Medication article for more information.

Recreational Drugs

Many recreational drugs can cause and aggravate anxiety symptoms. Especially those that affect the nervous system.

Visit our Recreational Drugs article for more information.

Stimulants

Stimulants bring about their stimulating effect by secreting stress hormones.

Increasing the body’s stimulation can cause and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Visit our Stimulants article for more information.

Sleep Deprivation

Going without adequate sleep can affect the body in many ways, such as:

  • Prevents the body from sufficiently refreshing itself
  • Stresses the nervous system
  • Impairs brain function
  • Increases blood pressure
  • Increases blood sugar
  • Increases moodiness
  • Increases cortisol to compensate for feeling tired (cortisol is a powerful stress hormone)

These effects can cause and aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Visit our Sleep Deprivation article for more information.

Fatigue

Fatigue can cause and aggravate many anxiety-like symptoms, such as:

To name a few.

Visit our Fatigue article for more information.

Hyper and Hypoventilation

Over and under breathing can also cause anxiety-like symptoms and aggravate existing symptoms.

Visit our Hyper And Hypoventilation article for more information.

Low Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar, even within the normal range, can cause anxiety-like symptoms. Low blood sugar can also aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Visit our Low Blood Sugar article for more information.

Nutritional Deficiency

Nutritional deficiencies, such as low vitamin B and D, can cause anxiety-like symptoms. Nutritional deficiencies can also aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Visit our Nutritional Deficiency article for more information.

Dehydration

Dehydration can also cause anxiety-like symptoms and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms, such as:

To name a few.

Visit our Dehydration article for more information.

Hormone Changes

Hormones affect the body in many ways and can affect each other. Hormone changes can cause anxiety-like symptoms and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Visit our Hormone Changes article for more information.

Pain

Pain stresses the body, especially chronic pain. If the pain is in the high degree range, it can cause and aggravate hyperstimulation.

If you are anxious, hyperstimulated, and symptomatic, pain can aggravate them all.

Visit our Pain article for more information.

Feeling emotionally unstable scared me when it first occurred. My emotional changes were so dramatic and seemingly out of control that I feared I was on the verge of a complete mental and emotional breakdown. As you know, fearing your symptoms and what you think they might do only makes things worse.

Being concerned about unstable emotions is a common scenario for many anxious people as they place great importance on how they feel.

When you combine unusual and unstable emotions with worry, it doesn’t take long for an anxious person to become even more symptomatic and concerned, which can further unsettle emotions.

Fortunately, while this symptom can be unsettling, it isn’t harmful and generally isn’t an indication of something more serious.

Feeling emotionally unstable is another example of how anxiety and hyperstimulation can affect our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being.

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Treatment

When this symptom is caused or aggravated by other factors, addressing those factors can reduce and eliminate it.

When this symptom is caused by anxiety and the stress response, ending the active stress response will bring an end to its changes and symptoms.

As your body recovers from the active stress response, this anxiety symptom should subside.

Keep in mind, it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. This is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When this anxiety symptom is caused by hyperstimulation, it can take much longer for the body to recover and eliminate symptoms.

Reducing and eliminating hyperstimulation will reduce and eliminate hyperstimulation-caused symptoms, including emotional symptoms such as dramatic mood swings.

As the body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops exhibiting symptoms, including this one.

Unfortunately, there are NO quick-fix cures for this symptom when it is caused by hyperstimulation. Getting rid of this symptom requires reducing and eliminating hyperstimulation.

But as with all symptoms of anxiety and hyperstimulation, emotional symptoms subside as the body recovers from an active stress response and hyperstimulation.

Therefore, there is no reason to worry about this symptom.

Therapy

While anxiety and hyperstimulation are the most common cause of this symptom, it’s also caused by unhealthy behavior linked to unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors.

Since behavior (the ways we think and act) primarily drives emotions, unhealthy behaviors can cause unhealthy emotions.

In this case, we need to successfully identify and address the underlying factors driving unhealthy behaviors to alleviate these emotional symptoms.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to identify and successfully address the underlying factors that cause anxiety and emotional symptoms.[6][7][8]

An experienced therapist can help you identify where your emotional symptoms are coming from — whether from anxiety, hyperstimulation, behavior, or all three. Once the cause has been identified, you can take the necessary steps to address it successfully.

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FAQ

Can anxiety make someone emotionally unstable?

Yes, anxiety and the stress it causes can make a person emotionally unstable. While this symptom can feel unnerving and unusual, it isn’t harmful. Addressing anxiety and reducing stress can bring a return to normal and predictable emotions.

How to help an emotionally unstable person?

If you have unstable emotions due to anxiety or stress, addressing your anxiety and stress can eliminate unstable emotions.

If you know someone with unstable emotions, encourage them to seek help for their anxiety and stress. Your encouragement and support could make a significant difference in that person’s life.

Why am I so emotionally unstable?

Anxiety and stress can affect emotions, making them unstable and unpredictable. Even though anxiety-caused dramatic mood swings can be startling, they aren’t harmful and will subside when you address your anxiety issues and reduce stress.

Is emotional instability from anxiety dangerous?

Emotional instability isn’t dangerous, even though it can feel that way because of how out of control emotions can seem.

But since unstable emotions are merely symptoms of anxiety and stress, they aren’t harmful or dangerous. Emotions become more predictable and settled once anxiety and stress have been addressed.

Can anxiety cause my emotions to run out of control?

Emotions are temporary and largely driven by behavior. Consequently, emotions don’t run out of control since we can change behavior.

If it seems like your emotions are running out of control, that typically means your body is hyperstimulated, or your behaviors are creating strong emotions.

Working to eliminate hyperstimulation and adopting healthy behavior can eliminate strong and persistent emotions.

Prevalence

In an online poll we conducted, over 75 percent of respondents said they experienced emotional instability because of their struggle with anxiety. As you can see, it’s a common anxiety symptom.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Emotionally Unstable anxiety symptoms.

References

1. Berczi, Istvan. “Walter Cannon's ‘Fight or Flight Response’ - ‘Acute Stress Response.’” Walter Cannon's "Fight or Flight Response" - "Acute Stress Response", 2017.

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

3. Elbers, Jorina, et al. "Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children." Pediatric Neurology, Dec 2018.

4. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

5. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.

6. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

7. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

8. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.