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General overview

Fluctuating emotions from happiness to sadness and back again can be a normal situation, especially in teenagers as they start to experience life situations at an increasing rate.

A person experiencing these emotional fluctuations may start incorporating coping skills which will allow them to handle certain situations adequately. There are times though where these coping skills may either not be adequate enough or not even present.

How to tell whether fluctuating emotions are normal or not

According to experts, there are 3 areas regarding emotions or moods which need to be assessed to determine whether these mood swings are normal in teenagers or whether they are symptoms of more serious issues.

The severity of the mood swings needs to be evaluated and the more severe the symptoms are, the more likely the chance is of a mood disorder being present. Depression in teenagers can include the following symptoms:

  • Mood changes (irritability, sadness or anger).
  • Changes in behaviour (acting out, eating less or more, withdrawing from friends and family or taking drugs illegally).
  • Changes in feelings (insecurity, apathy or loneliness).
  • Thought changes (hopeless, worthless or suicidal thoughts).
  • Perceptual disturbances (hallucinations or pain).

The duration of the symptoms is also very important to take note of as this can also differentiate between normal fluctuating emotions and mood disorders. Symptoms which last for 2 or more weeks, without any noticeable pause, may indicate depression. 

The affected teenager's environment may also allow for determination of whether there is a pathological issue involved or not. If the symptoms are displayed in many areas of the teenager's functioning and in multiple areas of interaction, such as at school, at home and with friends, then this may indicate a mood disorder.

The point that is being made here is that if the teenager's symptoms are severe to the point that they interfere with his/her normal functioning, relationships with friends and family and their schoolwork, then they need to be seen by their family doctor. They may then be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further evaluation or management.

Cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia

This is a rare mental health disorder which is characterized by fluctuating emotions but not as severe as with issues such as bipolar mood disorder. Where bipolar highs and lows can take weeks to alternate, they tend to do so within hours or days in cyclothymia.

The symptoms of this condition include the highs of mania and the lows of depression and may include the following:

  • Hypomanic symptoms - Increased self-esteem, euphoria, increased talking and racing thoughts, agitation, irritability, decreased sleep, can't concentrate and increased drive.
  • Depressive symptoms - Feeling sad, hopelessness, decreased drive and lack of interest in enjoyable activities, increased sleep, decreased appetite, fatigue and suicidal thoughts.
If this condition affects one's quality of life, then they need to see their family doctor to initiate management and then be referred to a psychiatrist and psychologist for further treatment. This is a completely curable condition with oral medication, psychotherapy and ongoing follow-up consultations with one's doctors.

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