7 Signs Someone Might Be Emotionally Unstable

by Carina Wolff
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It's common for people to have shifts in emotions — after all, life is filled with ups and downs — but there's a difference between experiencing a wide spectrum of emotions, and reacting to every event in an extreme way. According to experts, there are some early signs of emotional instability that someone may display, and paying attention to how their behavior changes and how they manage their emotions is essential to understanding their mental wellbeing. Not everyone who experiences a wide range of emotions is emotionally unstable, but there are some key characteristics that indicate that someone doesn't have a hold on how they feel, and may need help.

"Emotional instability usually means some unpredictability in emotions and reactions to events," psychologist Dr. Ashley B. Hampton, PhD tells Bustle. "For example, an event happens, and one would expect a certain reaction but receives a completely different reaction." Emotional instability can be a result of a personality disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder, but it can also occur with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or issues like grief, or trauma.

When you know someone might be experiencing difficulties processing their emotions, it's easier to understand why they may react in certain ways. Still, if your friend or loved one is experiencing signs of emotional instability, it isn't your job to moderate their emotional responses, or do anything but be there for them.

Here are seven signs to look out for if you think someone might be experiencing unstable emotions, according to experts.


They React In An Unexpected Way

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If someone reacts in a way that is counter to how many others react to the same circumstances, or in a way that feels disproportionate, it could be a sign of emotional instability. "The biggest early warning sign is receiving a reaction that is not expected," says Hampton. An example of this may be as subtle as someone laughing at an inappropriate time, Hampton says. Of course, this doesn't always mean someone is experiencing difficulties coping, but it may open up an opportunity to talk to them and see if they are in need of help.


Their Mood Changes Rapidly

Shifting moods are common for anyone, but when they frequently happen at the snap of the finger, it may be a sign someone is struggling with emotional balance. "Think of this as a roller coaster of emotions," psychologist Dr. Sherry Cormier, PhD, tells Bustle. "Almost without warning, the person may become agitated or sad, and sometimes for no apparent reason." If this is the case, and you notice it is recurring, try encouraging the person to speak with a loved one, or seek help from a therapist.


They Have Trouble Calming Themselves Down

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If someone is experiencing tumultuous emotions, they may have difficulty self-soothing. "This means they lack the skills to calm themselves down," says Dr. Cormier. "They instead become overly reactive and hyper-aroused, often to very minor things."

You might see this happening if your friend holds a grudge for a longer-than-expected period of time, or if they stay upset after resolving a disagreement. While this may be circumstantial, if you notice this is happening frequently in someone you love, therapy or other professional intervention can help them reach an equilibrium.


They Show Impulsive Behaviors

Someone who is emotionally unstable may often come off as impulsive or erratic. "This individual has poorer coping and problem-solving skills," says Cormier. "They often make decisions without forethought or behave erratically." Impulsive behaviors could look like breaking up with a longtime partner unexpectedly, or moving apartments without much warning. These behaviors aren't necessarily a bad thing, but if they interfere with someone's quality of life, it's worth bringing up to them.


They Are Inconsistent

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Along with the inconsistencies in reactions, you might also see inconsistencies in emotions or inconsistencies in thoughts. Someone might be unpredictable in how they react to certain situations. "These inconsistencies can be small or large and are often overlooked in the beginning," says Hampton. This could mean that one day, they react neutrally to disappointment, and the next day have a totally different reaction to an event on a similar scale. Once again, it may be necessary for this person to receive professional help to even out their emotions.


They Have Strained Relationships

If someone close to you always seems to be burning bridges with old friends or family members, or otherwise seems to have trouble maintaining their relationships, it could be a sign of emotional instability. "Those that have exhibited emotional instability often have problems with relationships with others, including personal relationships and relationships at work," says Hampton. You might notice they have short friendships or conflicts with people in multiple areas in their life. This may not always be the case, but when gravitating from one emotion to the next, it can impact those closest to this person.


They Find It Hard To Contain Their Feelings

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Those who are having difficulty with emotional stability might have trouble keeping their emotions inside, and they might act out onto others. "This means that they have trouble managing their feelings and mood states and tend to 'discharge' them on those around them," says Cormier. This can be unpredictable, and often abrupt.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it's worth gently having a conversation about seeking professional intervention. Emotional instability could be the result of a personality disorder, or mental health issue, and seeking help from loved ones or a therapist is the best way to feeling like yourself again.

This post was originally published on April 25, 2018. It was updated on September 9, 2019.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.