Bipolar Disorder isn't the Same as Emotional Lability

Are bipolar disorder and emotional lability the same? In this article, you'll find out that someone who's emotionally unstable doesn't necessarily have bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Disorder isn't the Same as Emotional Lability

Last update: 27 April, 2021

Although you might believe that bipolar disorder is related to emotional instability or lability, they’re different conditions. Discover why below.

When you hear the word bipolar, you probably think of someone with sudden mood swings. However, it’s far more complex than that.

Bipolar disorder, what it is and what it isn’t

This is a mood disorder in which the sufferer experiences manic, hypomanic, and depressive moods. Therefore, it goes far beyond emotional instability.

People tend to misuse the term “bipolar” in everyday language. This is because, when someone suffers emotional instability or lability or experiences mood swings, they tend to be incorrectly labeled as bipolar. But this disorder is completely different, and a person who suffers from it may also manifest signs of emotional lability.

A woman holding up two masks.


To be diagnosed with this condition, a patient needs to suffer from the types of episodes we mentioned above. For example, a manic episode that lasts at least one week (not a one-off moment), a hypomanic episode of at least four days, or a depressive episode of at least two weeks.

For the condition to be diagnosed, a patient must suffer at least one manic or hypomanic episode and one depressive episode over time. Type I bipolar disorder is when both a manic and a depressive episode occurs. Type II bipolar disorder is when hypomanic and other depressive episodes occur.

Bipolar disorder episodes

A manic episode is an abnormal and persistently elevated, expansive, and agitated mood. The sufferer feels overly active and energetic. In addition, they might exhibit exaggerated self-esteem or grandiosity, need less sleep, are extremely talkative, and have racing thoughts. A hypomanic episode involves the same symptoms. However, it only lasts for four days, as opposed to seven or more. In addition, it’s less severe and the sufferer doesn’t require hospitalization.

Regarding depressive episodes, sufferers experience a depressive mood for most of the day, almost every day. They may exhibit a lack of interest (apathy) or the inability to find pleasure in anything (anhedonia). These might be followed by other symptoms like insomnia, hypersomnia, fatigue, loss of energy and feelings of worthlessness, agitation, and psychomotor retardation.

Differences between bipolar disorder and emotional lability

What about emotional lability? This disorder causes an individual to manifest a type of abnormal and inappropriate affective communication. This behavior can change suddenly, making it similar to emotional instability.

People who exhibit emotional lability are usually considered extremely intense. In fact, they move from one emotion to another in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Furthermore, they struggle to find a balance in their rapidly changing emotions.

Bipolar disorder and emotional lability

What are the differences between these two conditions? Firstly, bipolar disorder is a serious condition. However, emotional lability is a characteristic of an individual. In other words, it isn’t a mental disorder but an affective one.

Emotional lability involves sudden mood swings that manifest one after the other. However, the changes aren’t so sudden in bipolar disorder. In addition, the manic and depressive episodes last longer. Indeed, as we mentioned above, they last at least four days in the former, whereas they might only last a few minutes in emotional lability. Finally, bipolar patients require pharmacological treatment, usually in the form of lithium. However, professionals usually treat emotional lability with psychotherapy.

A woman crying in the shower.

Final thoughts

You shouldn’t confuse these two conditions. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness. Emotional lability is an affectivity alteration. Although both disrupt the sufferer’s life, the former is a lot more serious.

Some people who suffer from the former also exhibit emotional lability. However, bipolar disorder is also accompanied by the episodes we mentioned above. Therein lies the difference between these two conditions.

Bipolar disorder can be a great teacher. It’s a challenge, but it can set you up to be able to do almost anything else in your life.”

 -Carrie Fisher-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • American Psychiatric Association –APA- (2014). DSM-5. Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales. Madrid: Panamericana.
  • Caballo (2002). Manual para el tratamiento cognitivo-conductual de los trastornos psicológicos. Vol. 1 y 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI.
  • Harrington R. (2005). Affective disorders. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 4th ed. Oxford: Blackwel Publising.
  • Hilty, D.M., Leamon, M.H., Lim, R.F., Kelly, R.H. y Hales, R.E. (2006). A Review of Bipolar Disorder in Adults. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(9): 43-55.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.