Published on May 12, 2023

When Do Mood Swings Become a Mental Illness?

Despite being common, mood swings, which are extreme or sudden mood changes, can indicate a deeper underlying issue. Mood swings can result from many factors, such as grief processing, sleep deprivation, or drug and alcohol abuse. While mood disorders resulting from the factors mentioned above are generally classified as normal, some manifestations might indicate an underlying mental illness. This is especially true when mood swings frequently materialize without external triggers or stressors. 

When Do Mood Swings Become A Mental Illness?

The primary causes of mood swings are often biological and environmental. These mood fluctuations can last a few minutes or sometimes a few hours, with the duration varying depending on the individual and the circumstances. In most cases, mood swings are brief and resolved on their own. In other instances, mood swings may last for days or longer. This is particularly true when they result from a diagnosed or undiagnosed underlying mental health condition or stressors. 

Here are some scenarios during which mood swings become a mental illness.

When You Experience Extreme Mood Fluctuations

When you experience mood swings more frequently than average or when you experience extreme fluctuations in your moods, it may indicate an underlying mental illness. According to experts at Healthline, extreme mood fluctuations can be signs of the following:

  • Bipolar Disorder: If you have bipolar disorder, your emotions will quickly fluctuate from happy to sad without inhibition. 
  • Cyclothymic Disorder: In this case, your moods fluctuate less severely than those associated with bipolar disorder.
  • Depressive Disorders: There are two main depressive disorders. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is characterized by extreme sadness for long stretches of time, while Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) is a chronic form of depression. 

Also, in some personality disorders, it is possible to experience rapid mood changes all within a relatively short period. In children, outbursts that seem far beyond their development stage could also be a sign of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD). 

In the cases mentioned above, mood fluctuations can be so severe to the point that they may interfere with one’s ability to function. If this is the case, it may be a time to visit experts from websites like or any others you are comfortable with.

When You Experience Rapid Cycling

Rapid cycling is the psychological term for when you experience four or more episodes of depression within a 12-month period. Rapid cycling is often but not always associated with bipolar disorder.

During rapid cycling, you may rapidly transition between a different range of symptoms, including depression, low energy levels and trouble concentrating, and mania. This may involve an unusually elevated or irritable mood, increased levels of energy, and decreased need for sleep. 

Experiencing rapid cycling symptoms could indicate that your mood swings have become a mental illness or a result of a mental illness. It is imperative to seek professional help right away. If left unaddressed, rapid cycling may cause more damage to your overall health and well-being.

When Your Mood Swings Impair Daily Functioning

Mood swings may cause emotional complications every now and then, which may disrupt your functioning until the moment that caused the disturbance passes. However, it could be a mental health concern when these mood changes significantly impair your daily activities like work, school, or relationships.

In the absence of lifestyle factors such as burnout and stress, your mood swings interrupting your daily functioning could be a sign that you have an underlying mental illness. If you constantly experience mood swings that significantly impact your daily functioning, consult a professional psychologist who will help to diagnose the underlying issue and give you a way forward.

When You Constantly Feel Sad And Hopeless

Mood swings come and go. It is normal to feel happy one moment and then sad the next, especially when undergoing significant stress. But if you experience persistent sadness and hopelessness that lasts for days or weeks, it may be time to consider that your mood swings reflect a mental illness.

Persistent sadness and hopelessness could be a sign that depression is the cause of your mood swings. While everyone experiences sadness now and then, those who suffer from depression can’t seem to shake the feeling off no matter what they do or how hard they try.

During a depressive episode, you will likely experience persistent sadness, hopelessness, irritability, and mood fluctuations that severely hamper your ability to function normally. So, when you feel sad for long periods, it indicates that you need to see a medical professional or mental health expert who will diagnose you and give you a way forward.

When Self-Care Techniques Don’t Seem To Work

When you experience mood swings, you may be advised by healthcare professionals to practice healthy routines in an effort to balance your life. These self-care techniques may include regular exercise, eating healthy and stable eating patterns, prioritizing sleep, and participating in relaxing activities. 

Self-care activities should help you better regulate your moods in due course. But if they fail to improve your overall mood, it could mean that your mood swings have become a mental illness or are a result of one. Hence, seeing a mental health expert at this juncture may be a wise decision. 

When You Suffer From Increased Irritability And Anger

Irritability and anger are also common when you are experiencing mood swings. However, they become a concern when they seem persistent and constantly expressed or felt. You should especially be concerned when you feel irritable and angry for no apparent reason.

Suppose your mood swings have been disproportionate, resulting in unwarranted outbursts at work or towards people close to you. In that case, it may be time to consult a mental health professional. Increased irritability and anger that last long could indicate that your mood swings result from an underlying mental illness. 

When You Self-Harm Or Entertain Self-Harming Thoughts

Mood swings accompanied by thoughts of self-harm are a probable sign that your mood disorders have become a mental illness or result from one. Experts suggest that self-harm can occasionally provide a temporary sense of calm, as it releases both physical and emotional tensions in those affected. This may help clarify the connection between complex emotions experienced during mood swings and the act of self-harm.

Some of the probable reasons you may experience feelings of self-harm when experiencing mood swings could be:

  • You find it increasingly strenuous to regulate your emotions. Mood swings may sometimes make it incredibly difficult to manage and control emotions, leading to some people resorting to self-harm to cope with emotional anguish.
  • You feel like self-harm is the only way to express and address the emotional pain you are feeling inside. Self-harm is often a resort for individuals who cannot communicate their emotional anguish out loud or through any other constructive means. 
  • Another reason you may experience feelings of self-harm when experiencing mood swings could be because you are simply seeking relief from emotional distress. Some people may find temporary relief from emotional distress through self-harm, as it can provide a sense of control or release of the pain hidden inside.

When you find yourself resorting to self-harm to regulate your emotions, chances are that your mood swings are a mental illness or a result of one. Opting to self-harm in an attempt to make sense of your emotional pain will only leave you feeling guilty and ashamed but will do nothing to resolve the complex emotions deep inside. 

If your mood swings make you think about harming yourself—even in a minor way—or fill your mind with thoughts of harming yourself, reach out to psychosocial experts for help immediately. 

When You Turn To Substance Abuse To Cope 

When you get to a point where you turn to drugs or think about abusing drugs to cope with extreme mood changes, your mood swings are probably a mental illness or a manifestation of one. Drugs, in this case, not only refer to harmful drugs like alcohol, but also prescription pills.

Drug abuse to dull your sensitivity to your moods may not solve your mood swing crisis. Instead, it may lead to severe problems like addiction and emotional ruin. It’s wise to remember that if your mood swings do not clear by themselves or occur in the absence of stressors, they may be a symptom of an underlying problem.

Therefore, instead of turning to drugs or self-medication, seek help from professionals who can diagnose and treat the underlying cause of your mood swings.

When You Have A Family History Of Mental Illness

A few experts suggested that while an imbalance of brain chemicals likely causes mood disorders, they also tend to run in families. The experts added that children, teenagers, or adults with a parent with a mood disorder are also likely to suffer from one. 

Therefore, when you experience mood swings that concern you, your family’s mental health history may be where all the answers lie. If your close family has a history of mental health issues, consult an expert to diagnose you. Your mood swings may be a symptom of a mental illness if your family history has recorded individuals who had a mental illness. 

When Your Mood Swings Result From Significant Life Trauma

If you experience severe mood disorders after undergoing severe trauma—like death in the family, severe injury, motor vehicle accidents, and sometimes divorce—you may need to seek professional help. These traumatic events may have triggered adverse mental health issues like depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and severe anxiety. These mental health issues manifest in many ways, some of them being mood swings. 

While mood swings may not always indicate that recent trauma has caused deeper mental health issues, their continued presence could be a symptom of a more profound mental illness. Therefore, when you experience severe mood swings after a traumatic event, seek professional help.

When You Experience Physical Symptoms During Mood Swings 

If you have experienced mood swings that resulted in physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, and back pains, it could indicate that your mood swings result from mental or physical illness. 

These symptoms can indicate deeper mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Seek help from professionals who can help you get to the bottom of your mental anguish and help you regain control of your moods.

Tips For Dealing With Mood Swings

When you find yourself experiencing mood swings, the following tips can be helpful.

  • Keep a diary or journal to track your emotions and thought changes. This journal would help you to identify patterns and triggers of your mood swings so you can put into place copying strategies as soon as you feel a shift.
  • Develop a routine that provides you with a sense of structure. In this routine, prioritize regular sleeping, exercise, relaxation, and eating patterns.
  • Practice self-care routines and learn relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing.
  • Build a strong support network around you to help with your mood swings. This support system could include family members, friends, and support groups coping with the same situation. Your support circle could give you an invaluable perspective in managing your mood swings.
  • Limit or completely avoid drug and substance abuse as they contribute to emotional stability.
  • Stay engaged in activities that make you happy and bring you a sense of accomplishment, whether sports, dance, or anything else.

Self-care tips are not a substitute for input from experts. When you start experiencing mood swings that concern you, you may consider self-care tips to see if anything changes. If the self-care tips do not make a difference, it is time to consider visiting an expert to get help.

The Takeaway

Mood swings are not always indicative of a mental health illness and are not a mental illness themselves. However, they could be an indication of a deeper mental health issue. If you or someone you know is experiencing frequent and debilitating mood swings, getting help is crucial. Many types of mental health disorders can cause mood disorders, so it’s best to talk with a professional who can diagnose the cause and recommend treatment options that work best for your situation.

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