Affect is a term psychologists use to describe how one feels. It’s easy to confuse affect with emotion, but they are different concepts. Affect is what you feel, and emotion is a reaction to your feelings. It is the experience of emotions, moods, and feelings in response to an event. Labile affect refers to mood swings not caused by a physiological condition or substance.
You might have heard or read somewhere that someone has a labile affect, but what does that mean? In psychology, labile affect is characterized by an emotionally unstable person experiencing frequent and severe changes in their mood and demeanor. So if you’re wondering, “What is a labile affect?”, this article will give you all the information you need on this subject.
What Is the Labile Affect?
The word labile describes something that tends to change rapidly and often. Affect is a verb that means “to influence” or “to act upon.” Labile affects readily react, often in response to external stimuli. It is a symptom of mental illness characterized by an intense and sudden change in emotion. Such abrupt emotional alterations can be positive or negative and may occur in response to a particular event, situation, sensation, or interaction.
Simply put, it is a ‘feeling’ or an emotion that changes one’s situation, mood, or surroundings and may be an unconscious expression of underlying psychopathology. A labile affect differs from a simple mood modulated by the environment; this term refers to frequent fluctuations in feeling and expression caused by something one encounters.
The definition of the word “labile” is:
- Liable to change or alteration; unstable.
- Chemistry. (of a chemical compound, mixture, or condition) undergoing or capable of changing, as in composition or structure.
- Biology. (of a cell constituent) capable of being changed rapidly in amount and response to specific stimuli; reversible.
During an episode of labile affect, you might see people:
- Punching walls
- Throwing objects
- Cursing at others
- Using physical violence against others
In some cases, these episodes can be more severe and lead to physical assault against others. It’s important to note that people experiencing labile affect do not intend to cause harm.
What Are the Symptoms of the Labile Affect?
A person with labile affect may experience sudden, dramatic changes in their mood. These changes can last several minutes or longer and may be triggered by situations or events. They may seem happy and upbeat, only to become extremely sad or angry the next minute. Their facial expressions and body language may change drastically with each mood swing.
People with labile affect may be unable to control their emotional responses during these changes. They often begin crying when they become upset and quickly stop when they become happy again. They have difficulty regulating their emotions, making it hard for people with the disorder to maintain healthy relationships and succeed at school or work.
In general, symptoms of labile affect include:
- Excessive crying or laughing in response to non-emotional stimuli
- Inappropriate expressions of emotion (e.g., laughing at bad news)
- Having difficulty controlling emotions in social situations or at work
- Being prone to outbursts or being easily upset by minor issues
- Mood changing quickly or being unable to predict which mood will occur next
- Showing signs of irritability, anxiety, or depression, regardless of other factors
- Mood swings that don’t seem to correlate with external events and are rapid and regular, occurring on a daily or weekly basis
- Riding an emotional rollercoaster with highs and lows that change quickly and unpredictably
- Feelings of guilt about mood swings or behavior during mood swings.
What Causes the Labile Affect?
There are many causes of labile affect. It can be caused by internal factors such as anxiety, drugs, or some illnesses. There are also external factors that can cause it, such as the environment or unexpected situations. Some of the most common causes of the labile effect are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and major depression.
For many people with these conditions, their labile affect may be caused by several other factors:
Genetic aspects — it is common for those with the condition to have relatives who also show signs of labile affect;
Stress — severe stress can lead to problems in the regulation of your moods;
Trauma — experiences like abuse, neglect, or extreme violence can cause labile affect;
Substance abuse — alcohol and drugs can cause mood swings;
Seizures — some studies indicate that it is possible to experience excessive emotional responses after seizures; and
Certain medications — some antidepressants are known to cause mood swings.
Treatment for Labile Affect
The first step to treating labile affect is to diagnose the disorder. Those with psychiatric illnesses, such as BPD, depression, or PTSD, are already under treatment. Their medical professional will treat them accordingly if they are also diagnosed with labile affect.
In most cases, treatment for labile affect involves psychotherapy and medication. Talk therapy is the most common therapy for people suffering from labile affect.
Talk therapy allows individuals to analyze all aspects of their life with the help of a trained mental health professional. A therapist will help patients identify negative thought patterns, explore harmful behaviors contributing to their emotional problems, and learn skills that will enable them to cope with difficult situations healthily.
Although talk therapy focuses on the individual’s words and actions in the present moment, a therapist will also encourage them to examine past events that may have shaped their current behavior patterns. Patients are allowed to share memories that have become difficult for them to cope with and discuss how those memories continue to affect them today.
Medication may also be prescribed to treat a psychological disorder that causes labile affect, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. In these cases, medications like mood stabilizers or antidepressants are prescribed to help alleviate symptoms. Antipsychotics may also be prescribed if delusions are present.
Antidepressants are believed to work by blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters such as serotonin at synapses in the central nervous system. Some people need long-term medication, while others only need it during a challenging period. Your doctor will recommend the best treatment option based on the type and severity of the situation.
There are several different types of antidepressant medicines. The most common ones are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), and TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants), and NRIs (norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors).
- Nuedexta (dextromethorphan, quinidine)
It is thought that Nuedexta compromises brain regions responsible for processing emotions and social interactions. This can lead to problems with emotional regulation, including reduced displays of positive emotions like smiling, laughing, and hugging.
Nuedexta is thought to help treat labile affect by blocking the activity of NMDA receptors. Blocking these receptors decreases nerve activity in the brain, which can help reduce the frequency and severity of mood swings caused by labile affect.
How to Cope With the Labile Affect?
Problems with emotional regulation can make it challenging to maintain relationships and perform well at work or school. Labile affect is a sign of a severe mental health condition that requires professional treatment to avoid the negative consequences of extreme mood swings.
It’s no secret that we all have different needs when coping with a psychological problems. For some of us, going for a run or hitting the gym is enough to make us feel better, but for others, that exercise would only add to the stress we are already experiencing.
We’re all different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with labile affect. However, despite our differences, research has revealed a few effective techniques for helping people cope with it. Here are some tips that have been proven to help:
Breathing exercises can help you relax because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed. Deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calmness.
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body and control your emotions. This is because breathing profoundly sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.
Identify the Situations that Trigger It
You might have noticed that your moods can change quickly and dramatically if you have a labile affect. You may feel delighted one minute, but a few minutes later, you could be feeling angry or sad. In general, it can be:
- Stressful situations
- Personal arguments or disagreements
- Physical illness
- Complicated relationships with others (for example, with your children or co-workers)
- Financial problems
- Lack of sleep or too much sleep
- Unpleasant memories from the past, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce or the end of a relationship, or an emotionally challenging event from childhood or adolescence
It is easy to miss the little things that impact our moods, but if you become aware of them and deliberately change your environment, they can have a surprisingly powerful effect on your well-being.
Get Enough Sleep and Limit Alcohol Usage
When people don’t get enough sleep, it can make them anxious or irritable. Everyone needs to get about eight hours of sleep each night. This helps their bodies and minds recover from the day and prepare for the next day.
Moreover, alcohol is a depressant that can cause depression symptoms to worsen, including feelings of hopelessness or sadness. Many drugs have similar effects on people with depression symptoms or bipolar disorder and those with these conditions.
Is Labile Mood and Labile Affect the Same?
Labile mood and labile affect are two terms that are often used interchangeably. A person experiencing a labile mood may also exhibit labile affect or vice versa. However, they are not the same thing, and a person may experience only one or the other.
A person with a labile mood experiences rapid mood changes. For example, if you have been diagnosed with bipolar or borderline personality disorder, you may experience rapid changes between depression and mania. Outside events can trigger these swings in mood, or they can come out of nowhere without any external cause.
Someone with labile affect experiences rapid shifts in the expression of feelings. For example, someone with borderline personality disorder may argue with a friend and seem completely upset one minute and then completely fine the next. This rapid change in emotional expression is called labile affect.
When you distance yourself from your emotions and experiences, you are simply looking for a way to cope with the pain and uncomfortable situations that arise in life. Being able to cope with emotionally intense situations is essential to everyday life. How we deal with our emotions and experiences will either help us or hurt us. This is what makes psychological distancing such an important thing to learn.
When you can distance yourself from your emotions rather than reacting impulsively, you can begin to learn how to cope with the liable affect in psychology.
- Martin Paspe Cruz, PharmD, CGP, BCPP. Nuedexta for the Treatment Of Pseudobulbar Affect: A Condition of Involuntary Crying or Laughing. 2013 Jun; 38(6): 325–328
- Simmons, Z., & Ahmed, A. (2013). Pseudobulbar affect: Prevalence and management. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, 483. https://doi.org/10.2147/tcrm.s53906
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