All of us go through shifts in moods on a regular basis. Changing mood is perfectly human. A stressful day, week, or month can often get the better of us and shift our mood from happy and content to worried, anxious, and negative.
Significant life events such as marriage, divorce, moving house, the death of a loved one, or a global pandemic all can affect our mood and cause us to experience some emotional dysregulation.
Regardless of your life circumstances or stress levels, it would be impossible to maintain the same mood to the same level of intensity all the time. Mood, like the weather, is always subject to change.
However, some people experience drastic shifts in mood that impact their well-being and ability to perform effectively in their daily life, such as at work, in their relationships, or in their sense of motivation and focus.
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of mood swings. We’ll define a mood swing and then explore the most common causes of this confusing and often stressful phenomenon. Later in the article, we’ll offer some evidence-based tips and advice you can apply to your life, starting today, if mood swings are getting in the way of your health and happiness.
What are mood swings?
When a person’s mood shifts dramatically over a short amount of time, they are said to experience’ mood swings’. Though we all experience shifts in mood and still get on with our lives relatively unaffected, people who struggle with mood swings may find it hard to cope.
Mood swings are more intense than regular mood changes. They usually happen suddenly, and the person affected may swing from one extreme to another, such as happiness to sadness, excitement to numbness, or friendliness to hostility.
The sudden onset, intensity, and unpredictability of a mood swing can be frightening and confusing. The person struggling may not be able to predict when a mood swing will happen because the triggers and cues are often subtle.
Moments of significant stress or excessive alcohol consumption are common triggers for mood swings, but they can happen even when there is no obvious stressor or use of substances.
Common causes of mood swings
Some of the most common causes of mood swings include:
Stress is one of the leading causes of mood swings; whether there is an underlying condition present or not, stress can overwhelm the healthiest of us at times. Day-to-day tasks and responsibilities can pile up and leave us feeling overwhelmed. Excess demands at work, taking care of children, maintaining our relationships, and looking after ourselves can feel too much at times and may cause us to over or under-react to life events.
The body is designed to handle stress in short bursts, but it suffers if stress is prolonged. When stress persists, we’re likely to feel anxious, unfocused, confused, and tired. Stress impacts your ability to get good quality sleep, exacerbating the stress we’re already dealing with.
Mood swings can happen due to a poor diet consisting of excess sugar, refined carbohydrates, and other heavily processed foods, which affect our blood sugar and hormone balance and have a direct impact on our mood and emotional stability.
Eating foods rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins, and healthy fats helps the body and mind stay healthy and reduces the severity and frequency of mood swings.
Changes in the body’s hormone levels can lead to mood swings. In women, menopause begins as perimenopause in the late 30s or early 40s, which leads to erratic changes in estrogen levels and a reduction in progesterone levels. Serotonin, the body’s natural mood regulator, is affected by estrogen levels. When estrogen fluctuates, and progesterone production slows down, a woman’s body also produces less serotonin, which has a direct impact on mood regulation.
Are mood swings a mental health disorder?
Sometimes mood swings indicate an underlying mental health condition. Often, medical professionals will ask a client about the frequency and severity of their mood swings to provide a diagnosis for their presenting issue.
Questions about mood swings often arise when a doctor or patient suspects borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder. The mood swings observed in these conditions are often referred to as ’emotional lability.’ Emotional lability is also observed in people who live with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.
Depression and mood swings
Mood swings are a symptom of untreated depression. Sadness and numbness may swing to anger and aggressiveness all of a sudden in a person living with untreated depression. The condition is characterized by an emotional shut-down or ‘numbness’ but includes many other symptoms that lead to or exacerbate the severity of mood swings, including:
- Sleep issues (sleeping too much or not enough)
- Exhaustion, fatigue
- Poor concentration
- Poor decision making
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Loss of appetite, or eating more than usual
- Sadness, hopelessness
Bipolar disorder and mood swings
Mood swings are one of the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder. In both types of bipolar disorder (bipolar I and bipolar II), people experience periods of drastic highs and deep lows, known as mania and depression, respectively.
The mood swings one experiences in bipolar disorder are exhausting; a person feels manic for weeks, then suddenly crashes and enters into a depressive episode that can last for weekends or months.
During a manic episode, a person with bipolar disorder will:
- Talk at a rapid pace
- Have excess energy
- Neglect sleep, not feel tired
- Be more focused in achieving, starting projects, reaching goals
- Be more irritable
- Feel euphoric
During a depressive episode, a person with bipolar disorder may:
- Lose interest in life
- Sleep more than usual
- Experience a change in appetite
- Struggle to concentrate and focus
- Feel worthless
- Have thoughts about death or suicide
Borderline personality disorder and mood swings
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a common mental health condition and can cause mood swings. People who live with BPD are subject to intense and sudden mood swings that may last from a few hours to less than a week. BPD mood swings are characterized by changes in how the person affected feels about themselves and others.
Symptoms of BPD that influence and exacerbate mood swings include:
- Unprotected sex, substance abuse, reckless behavior
- Angry outbursts or panic toward real or perceived abandonment
- Self-harm, suicidality
- Feeling of emptiness
Excessive use of drugs or alcohol is a common cause of mood swings. Drugs and alcohol affect the central nervous system (CNS), which is the reason why some drugs heighten our energy while others dampen it.
Regular use of drugs or alcohol may lead to dependence, whereby the body needs the drug or drink of choice to function and operate its systems properly. If the drug is not available, the dependent person is subject to drastic shifts in mood.
Dependence soon leads to addiction, which can be fatal. If you believe that you or a loved one is struggling with substance misuse, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. Addiction is a chronic and progressive condition and can be fatal if left untreated.
How to manage mood swings
Some mood swings are mild and don’t interrupt a person’s life enough to pose an issue. In cases of mild or occasional mood swings, a person can help themselves cope through simple lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and sleep. Even in cases of more severe mood swings, certain lifestyle changes can make a significant difference.
If you’re struggling with mood swings of any degree or severity, consider and apply the following changes to your life:
- Eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods on a regular schedule
- Avoid excess sugar and caffeine
- Exercise daily (at least 30 minutes)
- Use meditation, mindfulness, or yoga to help reduce your stress levels
- Aim for 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep every night, as recommended by the CDC
- Journal about your experience – track changes in mood and write about what was happening at the time to better identify potential triggers
- Make an effort to maintain your social connections, such as your relationships with family and friends
Some mood swings are severe and require a more comprehensive and supported approach than simple lifestyle changes. If mood swings are impacting your quality of life and are persistent, that may indicate that an underlying mood disorder or other mental health condition is present. In that case, psychotherapy with or without the use of medication will be highly beneficial.
If your mood swings stem from an underlying mental health condition, a licensed therapist can help. Mood swings that result from mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder can hinder your health and well-being in daily life.
Mood swings can also impact the quality of your relationships, potentially causing them to deteriorate and leaving you at a loss for connection, one of the leading causes of loneliness.
Loneliness and isolation are some of the leading exacerbators of mental health conditions, so it is important to speak to a mental health professional if mood swings significantly affect your life.
In therapy, an attuned and compassionate therapist can help you develop healthy coping skills for when stress arises and teach how to manage your mood swings so you can reduce the damage they do to your relationships and yourself. A therapist can help you by:
- Improving your emotional regulation
- Identifying and addressing the root causes of your mood swings
- Addressing the cognitive triangle – the interconnectedness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (cognitive behavioral therapy)
- Improve your communication skills to improve your relationships
Suppose your mood swings are a result of a condition such as depression or anxiety. In that case, a doctor may be able to provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in the form of pharmacotherapy (medication). Pharmacotherapeutic options for mood swings include:
- Anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications
- Sleep aid medication
If you have been using or misusing substances, it’s crucial to let your doctor know. Doctors work under strict confidentiality, so you won’t have to worry about any legal issues. If your mood swings stem from the use or misuse of substances, then certain medication may be required or, alternatively, inappropriate.
Mild mood swings are a normal part of life and are not usually a cause for concern. Mood swings typically stem from times of excess stress and tend to fade away when the stress has been overcome. However, if you are experiencing mood swings to a moderate or severe degree, it’s worth speaking to someone.
There are some self-help and preventative tips to help you manage your mood swings, such as getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, and identifying your triggers. Still, if your mood swings are significantly impacting your health, relationships, and overall well-being, then it’s best to speak to a professional.