Even strong emotional fluctuations are normal for all of us, especially in challenging situations. Some people experience exceptionally rapid and intense emotional fluctuations, whereby their mood can change from ecstatic to rotten several times during one day. Their emotions are like a rollercoaster that is difficult to stay on.
The characteristics of an emotionally unstable personality or borderline personality disorder include:
- exceptionally rapid and intense emotional fluctuations and a permanent and long-term way of experiencing them,
- an inconsistent and shifting self-image,
- a strong fear of abandonment,
- impulsive behaviour,
- intense relationships and crises therein, and
NOTE! If you have thoughts of self-harm or self-harming behavioural tendencies, please click here to seek help.
Emotional instability is a combination of thinking and operating models that are typical of a person, repeatedly and significantly undermine their ability to function and cause them to have difficulties in different areas of life. Emotional instability involves a wide variety of symptoms and it depends on the individual how it affects their life.
Emotional instability does not mean that a person’s emotions or reactions are wrong. However, the diagnosis may have a stigma attached to it.
Diagnoses are a system developed for professionals with the purpose of ensuring that the treatment provided is as effective as possible. A diagnosis gives a set of symptoms a name. It also contains a notion of the reasons for a problem or illness and provides information about the future: what kind of characteristics or courses of illness are related to it and how it affects the person’s life. Receiving a diagnosis can be scary, a relief or anything in between.
At first, it was maybe a little shocking to be diagnosed, but then I was relieved, having a name for my symptoms and then receiving support and help.Laura, expert by experience
Mental health related diagnoses invoke a lot of preconceived notions, as well as detrimental ideas about the symptoms and their impact on life. Personality disorders in particular can be seen as labelling, and the symptoms can become a part of the person’s self-image. Seeing any mental health disorder as an inseparable part of one’s self can limit a person’s life and even hinder their recovery.
At best, however, a diagnosis will support recovery by increasing the person’s understanding of themselves and things affecting their behaviour, as well as helping them receive appropriate treatment. A person may also recognise characteristics of emotional instability in themselves even without having a diagnosis.
Assignment: A person’s attitude towards having a diagnosis can either help or hinder their recovery, treatment and self-care. Think about your attitude towards your diagnosis or characteristics related to instability. Write down your thoughts on a piece of paper, your computer or your phone.
- What kind of thoughts does/did receiving the diagnosis evoke in you?
- Did the diagnosis change your perception of yourself? How?
- Has your diagnosis changed your loved ones’ attitudes towards you? How?
- What kind of notions and/or prejudices do you have with regard to borderline personality disorder and the diagnosis?
Many people with emotional instability are capable of living quite a normal everyday life when they learn to regulate their emotions. There is help available for this, and the first step towards more functional emotional regulation is receiving information.
In the video below, experts by experience talk about how emotional instability has manifested itself and felt in their lives and how they have learned to live with it.
Living with emotional instability
Assignment: think about how challenges with emotional regulation have affected your life. Your thoughts may stir up a variety of emotions, such as sorrow, guilt or anger. If that happens, you can remind yourself that you did not choose your symptoms and that you are allowed to have all kinds of emotions. We cannot choose what emotions get stirred up in us, but we can learn to take control of our actions when they do.
How has emotional instability or dysregulation affected the following areas of your life: your familial relations and friendships, your work or studies, your health and wellbeing, your leisure time and your self-expression?
What is really important to you in life? Do your challenges with emotional regulation have an impact on these important things? What are some important things you need more functional emotional regulation to be able to enjoy?
Borderline personality disorder is one the most common personality disorders, and each and every person has at least occasional challenges with emotional regulation. Personality disorders are diagnosed all over the world. Instability is the most common in early adulthood, and the symptoms tend to even out with age.
Emotional instability occurs
- in slightly less than one per cent of the world’s population,
- more commonly in women than men,
- in every fourth psychiatric outpatient care client.
Difficulties with emotional regulation are included in the symptoms of many psychiatric illnesses. In certain mental health disorders, the symptoms can be difficult to discern from emotional instability. For example, bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorders involve emotional fluctuations that are similar to those in borderline personality disorder.
Typical mental health disorders and symptoms that coexist with emotional instability include:
- psychotic symptoms,
- mood disorders,
- neuropsychiatric disorders,
- eating disorders,
- somatoform disorders,
- post-traumatic symptoms,
- dissociative disorders, and
- other personality disorders.
Emotional instability differs from mood disorders in that it involves somewhat permanent ways of perceiving things, thinking of other people and understanding one’s self and environment. This way of experiencing develops in childhood and youth and causes harm to the person themselves.
The four key sets of symptoms of emotional instability are unstable moods and emotions, behavioural dysregulation, disorders in perceptual and cognitive functions, and difficulties with identity and relationships. The next sections of the programme examine each set of symptoms in more detail.
Typical symptoms of emotional instability:
- fear of abandonment
- fickle and intense relationships characterised by fluctuations between extreme idealisation and belittling
- an unstable self-image or experience of one’s self
- impulsive and self-harming behaviour (e.g. impulsive spending, reckless sex, substance use, carelessness in traffic, binge eating)
- recurring self-destructive behaviour, thoughts of self-harm
- intense mood swings
- a sense of emptiness
- intense anger and difficulties with controlling one’s behaviour when angry
- stress-related suspiciousness or delusions
- dissociative symptoms (feeling unreal, feeling like being outside of one’s self)
- difficulties with doing things that are not immediately rewarded.