The practice of calling women "emotional," "crazy," or "moody" has a long, storied history as one of the patriarchy's favorite tools to discredit women and their ideas. But the Big Scary Secret is that everyone is emotional and moody sometimes — and that doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong. So it's time we all got a little more comfortable with our feelings and the sometimes tumultuous journeys between them. Here's what you need to know about your mood swings, what's totally normal, and when to actually worry.
Essentially, any change from one mood to another counts as a mood swing. But if you're swinging from a one to a nine pretty frequently, that might be a sign that you're dealing with an actual disorder — especially if there isn't some sort of emotional stressor (like someone being rude AF to you on the subway, or unexpectedly getting really bad news) setting you off.
Essentially, emotions are the product of our brains making predictions about what's going to happen in the world around us based on what's happened before, explains Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, author of the recently-released book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. For instance, if every time you get an email from your aunt it's because she's mad at you, you'll probably start to get worked up before you even read past her subject lines.
"Your brain is using a model of the world to make these predictions," Dr. Barrett says. "So, if your model of the world doesn’t fit the world you’re in, or you had past experiences in a chaotic or very negative environment," your brain is going to have a harder time predicting things accurately. And some abrupt or unnecessary emotional changes could be the result. Maybe you grew up with a particularly passive-aggressive mother, for example, and now you're on high alert any time someone ends a text with a smiley face.
But again, that could be the case no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. Despite conventional thinking in our culture, there aren't any sex differences when it comes to how emotionally reactive we are. If researchers directly ask men and women how emotional people of each sex are, both will agree that women are "more emotional," Dr. Barrett says. But if those researchers follow those participants throughout the day, randomly asking them about their feelings, you see no sex differences at all.
"There are people who experience the agony and ecstasy of life while others just float in the sea of tranquility," Dr. Barrett says, "but they don't typically fall along gendered lines." Translation: Men are just as likely to be "moody" as women.
Regardless of gender, though, there are times when those mood swings might actually be worrying. Bipolar disorder, for instance, is characterized by extreme emotional highs and lows. But although mood swings may be a part of many disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, and ADHD), they're not a disorder in and of themselves.
The key, again, is how intense and frequent your mood swings are and whether or not you're reacting to something in your environment. There aren't any hard-and-fast rules here, Dr. Barrett says. But if you notice other symptoms of a disorder (think: changes in your eating or sleeping habits) along with your mood swings, or you find that your mood is changing more frequently than usual, that might be worth talking to a professional about.
And, of course, for most of us, mood swings are a totally understandable part of our ever-changing emotional lives. Some of us are simply more reactive than others, says Dr. Barrett, and there's nothing "crazy" about that.