What Causes a Person to be Emotionally Unstable?

We all experience ebbs and flows in our emotions. But for some, the peaks and valleys feel more like a rollercoaster ride than a gentle wave. Intense, unpredictable and uncontrollable shifts in emotions characterize what psychologists call emotional instability or emotional dysregulation. This chronic instability often hinders relationships, work and overall wellbeing.

What causes this turbulent emotional landscape that feels impossible to navigate? The reasons are complex and multifaceted. By understanding the potential contributors, you can begin stabilizing your emotions to reclaim balance.

Brain Chemistry and Wiring

Like all mental health conditions, brain biology plays a role in emotional instability. Imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine can make it harder to regulate emotions. Differences in the limbic system, which governs emotional processing, can also dysregulate mood. Trauma and chronic stress impact brain structure over time. Genetics may predispose some people to instability. Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD often involve emotional volatility. For many, the brain wiring itself contributes to the peaks and valleys.

Childhood Adversity

Our early environments and attachment relationships shape the development of emotion regulation skills. Adverse childhood experiences like abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, divorce, caregiver substance abuse and more can impede healthy development if not addressed and healed. Without learning how to understand, express and modulate emotions from an early age, instability often persists into adulthood. Ongoing stress in childhood also damages the developing brain’s ability to regulate emotions.

Poor Coping Skills

How we learn to cope with stress, handle problems and self-soothe also impacts emotional stability. Those who don’t develop healthy coping strategies like exercise, time with loved ones, therapy, meditation, journaling and the arts are more likely to rely on problematic self-medication through overeating, substance abuse, self-harm, yelling, throwing things, reckless behavior and more. Maladaptive coping fuels emotional volatility. Emotional instability then decreases ability to cope. It becomes a destructive cycle.

Perfectionism

The drive for flawlessness and order can also breed emotional volatility when reality inevitably falls short. All-or-nothing thinking triggers frequent swings between emotional highs when succeeding and lows when you inevitably fail to meet unrealistic expectations. Self-criticism, anxiety, guilt and shame corrode stability. Perfectionism creates an environment ripe for frequent emotional storms.

Physical Causes

Certain illnesses, drugs and bodily states can heighten emotional reactions or make feelings harder to control. Conditions like premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), menopause, thyroid disorders, seizures, dementia and traumatic brain injuries influence emotional regulation. Prescription drugs, recreational substances and withdrawal from any of those can also contribute to feeling emotionally erratic and unlike yourself. Sleep deprivation, malnutrition, infections and inflammation likewise affect brain health and mood stability.

Lack of Routine

Our brains crave predictability and order. When daily life becomes chaotic and uncertain, it can trigger underlying anxiety and destabilize emotions. Attempting to juggle too many responsibilities without rest, structure or breaks often causes emotions to spiral out of control. Overscheduling creates an environment where relatively minor stressors provoke exaggerated emotional reactions. Bringing routine to waking, working, chores, leisure time, health habits and sleep restores a sense of safety and calm.

Age and Maturity

The prefrontal cortex, which governs rational thinking and decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. During adolescence and young adulthood, emotions hold more sway. The wisdom and perspective that come with life experience also help stabilize emotional responses over time. Impulsivity and melodrama tend to decline with maturity and practice in regulating feelings and behaviors rather than reacting. Patience and compassion for yourself during this learning process can help.

Toxic Relationships

Unstable, chaotic and abusive relationships often trigger emotional volatility as you internalize negative relational patterns. Yelling, manipulation, gaslighting, hostility, dishonesty, poor boundaries and enmeshment distort your reality. This creates insecurity and provokes an emotional rollercoaster. Detoxifying or leaving harmful relationships is essential for establishing stability. Healthy relationships provide safety, understanding and support.

Stress Overload

When demands exceed resources, the sheer load of stress can engulf your ability to cope and regulate your feelings. Overwhelm makes even small disruptions catastrophic. Stress narrows focus to survive immediate demands, reducing ability to see the bigger picture, plan ahead and respond thoughtfully. By lowering stress levels and responsibilities, clearing obligations and saying no to nonessentials, you create space to build up emotional resilience.

Trauma

Traumatic experiences like grief, accidents, abuse, assault, disasters, witnessing violence, major life changes and significant losses often damage one’s sense of safety in the world. Psychological trauma undermines the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors. Intrusive memories, hypervigilance, avoidance, numbness and losing control over your feelings are common trauma responses. Professional counseling provides tools to process and heal from traumatic experiences.

Mental Health Conditions

Many psychiatric disorders involve ongoing emotional instability as a central characteristic. These include borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, PTSD, schizophrenia and addictive disorders. Effective treatment such as therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, support groups or residential programs help stabilize mood swings. Diagnosis opens doors to treatment.

Making Needed Lifestyle Changes

Addressing the root causes contributing to emotional turbulence empowers you to gain control over your feelings rather than being controlled by them. Challenge black and white thinking, improve coping skills, heal past traumas, treat health conditions, make time for self-care, set boundaries and prioritize emotional well-being. Consider counseling, support groups and mental health treatment. With compassion, courage and commitment, stability lies ahead.