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Emotional instability is defined as “rapid, often exaggerated changes in mood, where strong emotions or feelings (uncontrollable laughing or crying, or heightened irritability or temper) occur. These very strong emotions are sometimes expressed in a way that is not related to the person’s emotional state.” It can be difficult to witness a loved one struggle with labile emotions, and even more challenging to decipher the best ways to offer support that is both de-escalating and effective. To provide constructive support, it is important to learn about what it means to be emotionally unstable and why it happens. Become aware of how emotional instability presents, including common signs and symptoms. There are several factors that contribute to the development of emotional instability, such as genetics, mental health history (e.g., past trauma), and exposure to certain stimuli (e.g., drug use and abuse).

What To Say

To avoid exacerbating a loved one’s emotional turmoil, communicate in a thoughtful and intentional manner. If you are unsure what that looks like, below are several suggestions as well as disarming phrases that may be helpful:

  • Express your concern without making the person feel blamed or judged by using “I” statements:
    • I have been worried about you lately.
    • I have noticed some changes in your behavior and wanted to check in.
  • Use empathetic, open-ended questioning:
    • What is bothering you?
    • How does that make you feel?
  • Ask them if they are thinking about suicide, as there is a high incidence of self-harming and suicidal tendencies in those struggling with emotional instability. Studies show that asking does not increase the risk.
  • Validate emotions by affirming their feelings:
    • I hear how upset you are.
    • That does sound tricky.
  • Listen more than you speak, remain engaged, and make sure they feel heard:
    • Prompt them to delve deeper by asking Can you share a bit more about that?
    • Summarize and repeat back what they have shared to show that you heard them.

While the term is sometimes used in a clinical setting, labeling an individual as emotionally unstable brings forth negative connotations and is highly offensive and stigmatizing. Instead, it is best to use the term emotion regulation, when discussing issues with managing, expressing, and coping with emotions, as it does not carry the same stigma.

For Information and Support 

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times. Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.


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