Emotional Symptoms

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Introduction

What are the signs of emotional problems?

Emotional symptoms include anger, anxiety, disgust, excitement, fear, happiness, joy and sadness, to name a few. Emotional symptoms can be positive or negative and can come from within you or be a reaction to your environment. Emotional changes can be normal, temporary responses to events; however, disproportionate, extreme, persistent or unstable emotional reactions may indicate an underlying disorder.

Emotional symptoms can cause legal or financial problems, relationship difficulties, and problems at home, school or work. They can be associated with aggression, agitation, feelings of emptiness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and loss of pleasure. Alternatively, feelings of enthusiasm, grandiosity and hopefulness may be present. Emotional symptoms can lead to inappropriate behaviors, increased accidents, poor judgment, self-harm, violence, and suicide.

Abnormal emotional symptoms are associated with several psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder, major depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, and substance abuse. Emotional symptoms can also be seen with personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Furthermore, behavioral disorders and conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can also have emotional symptoms.

Most people with emotional symptoms do not seek assistance from a mental health professional, but they continue to visit their primary care provider. Frequently, through denial or misapprehension, there is reluctance to seek help.

Some emotional symptoms can also be related to medication side effects or chronic medical conditions. Medications and substances can directly affect the nervous system and thus can cause emotional symptoms. Medical conditions, such as dementia, can contribute to emotional symptoms by damaging brain tissue. The link between emotional symptoms and chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and chronic pain disorders, is less clear and probably related to a number of factors.

Occasionally, emotional symptoms can have serious, even life-threatening, complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious injury; inability to care for yourself; or threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior.

If your emotional symptoms are persistent, create problems, or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with emotional symptoms?

Emotional symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that frequently affect the emotions may also involve other body systems.

Psychological and cognitive symptoms that may occur along with emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms may accompany other psychological or cognitive symptoms including:

  • Aggression, irritability or agitation

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Confusion or forgetfulness

  • Difficulty with concentration or attention

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Grandiosity

  • Hallucinations or delusions

  • Heightened arousal or awareness

  • Poor judgment

  • Racing thoughts and rapid speech

  • Reckless or inappropriate behaviors

Other symptoms that may occur along with emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, emotional symptoms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior

  • Sudden change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Trauma, such as bone deformity, burns, eye injuries, and other injuries

Causes

What causes emotional symptoms?

Emotional symptoms can be caused by several psychiatric illnesses, personality disorders, behavioral disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Emotional symptoms can also be related to medication side effects or chronic medical conditions.

Situational or environmental factors also play a role in emotional symptoms. These factors include traumas or stressors, such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or a divorce. As life circumstances improve, the emotional symptoms may or may not resolve.

Medications and substances that have direct effects on the nervous system can cause emotional symptoms. Medical conditions, such as dementia, can contribute to emotional symptoms by damaging brain tissue. The link between emotional symptoms and chronic medical conditions (for example, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and chronic pain disorders) is less clear, and probably related to a number of factors.

Psychiatric causes of emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms may be caused by psychiatric conditions including:

  • Antisocial personality disorder (disordered perceptions and interactions with others)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder (disorder characterized by unstable relationships)
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (disorder characterized by extreme anger)
  • Major depression
  • Postpartum depression
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Seasonal affective disorder

Other causes of emotional symptoms

Emotional symptoms can have other causes including:

  • Brain tumors
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS
  • Chronic pain
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease
  • Head injury
  • Side effects of medications, such as antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and opioid pain relievers
  • Substance abuse

Serious or life-threatening causes of emotional symptoms

In some cases, emotional symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Acute delirium (sudden onset of mental status changes due to illness or toxicity)
  • Alcohol poisoning or drug overdose
  • Mania (elevated mood and energy levels that can occur in bipolar disorder)
  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of emotional symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your emotional symptoms including:

  • When did you first notice your emotional symptoms?
  • How would you describe your symptoms?
  • Does anything make them better or worse?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Do you have any psychiatric or medical problems?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Do you drink any alcohol?
  • Are you using any illicit drugs?

What are the potential complications of emotional symptoms?

Because emotional symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Difficulties at work, in school, in social environments, and with relationships
  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse
  • Drug overdose or alcohol poisoning
  • Impaired social interactions
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Legal or financial troubles
  • Self-harm
  • Social isolation
  • Suicide or violence
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Nov 25
  1. Major depression. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001941/
  2. Do I really need help?  The Ohio State University Medical Center. http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/mental_health/mental_health_about/mood/...
  3. Kravitz RL, Ford DE. Introduction: chronic medical conditions and depression--the view from primary care. Am J Med 2008; 121:S1.
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