An emotional outburst refers to a sudden passionate display of emotion resulting from strong or intense feelings.
Experiencing an emotional outburst can be a vulnerable experience, particularly if you’ve kept emotions under wraps and aren’t used to expressing how you feel.
Maybe you’ve been piling extra work. You’ve been stressed and frustrated, but you wanted to be a good team player.
Then, one day, you miss an important family event because of your workload and that’s the last straw. You experience intense anger and your emotions bubble to the surface. Before you know it, you’re putting it all out there. You’ve experienced an emotional outburst.
Emotional outbursts are natural and common, but the overwhelm you feel may be preventable.
Emotional outbursts appear as a rapid shift from a state of calm to one of uncontrollable, intense emotion. You might suddenly become enraged, burst into tears, or start yelling, for example.
To an outsider, it can seem as though you’ve gone from 0 to 100, but many emotional outbursts are the result of long-present feelings that you have kept to yourself.
Katie Luman, a licensed professional counselor from Marietta, Georgia, says emotional outbursts in adults are usually an overflow of negative emotions, like anger, hurt, or sadness. They can also involve any strong emotion — even joy.
“An emotional outburst occurs when a need or expectation has gone unmet for too long,” she explains.
Emotional outbursts vs. adult tantrums
Often, the main difference between an emotional outburst and adult tantrums is intent.
Emotional outbursts are uncontrollable expressions of intense emotions. It’s when emotion overwhelms you and you temporarily lose control over its expression.
Adult tantrums are primarily negative displays of emotion that can be deliberate, manipulative, or willful expressions of frustration or anger, often to get something in return.
According to Judy Rosenberg, a psychologist from Los Angeles, you can experience emotional outbursts as a result of:
- chronic stress
- poor sleep
- substance use
- low blood sugar
- medication side effects
- underdeveloped coping mechanisms
Emotional lability can cause emotional outbursts in adults
For some people, emotional outbursts are associated with emotional lability, a term that refers to uncontrollable changes in your emotions.
A neurological condition can cause these constant emotional changes and the uncontrollable emotional expressions aren’t necessarily the result of underlying pressures (like stress).
According to Rosenberg, emotional lability may be associated with physical and mental health challenges such as:
- traumatic brain injury
- cerebrovascular accidents (strokes)
- adjustment disorders
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Asperger’s syndrome
- bipolar disorder
- postpartum depression
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- psychosis or psychotic disorders
- personality disorders
- oppositional defiant disorder
“Emotional outbursts often occur when a pre-existing condition meets a high-stress situation,” says Billy Roberts, a licensed independent social worker and therapist from Columbus, Ohio.
Emotional outbursts are alarms that your mind is sending you to perhaps manage your emotions in a different way, before they overwhelm you.
You can learn to regulate emotions and develop coping mechanisms that help you release stress ahead of time and in the moment.
1. Addressing emotional vulnerabilities
Roberts recommends being proactive about the things that might contribute to an emotional outburst. This will be something different for every person. So, the first step might be to identify those internal and external incidents that you feel may push your buttons.
For example, try to notice if your emotional outbursts are related to lack of sleep, changes in your diet, conflict at home, or physical pain. Once you identify some of the potential triggers, you may be able to focus on coping with those to prevent emotional outbursts.
“Focus on improving sleep, nurturing yourself physically, setting boundaries, and reducing stress where possible,” he states. “If there are pre-existing concerns lurking such as an anxiety, mood, or attention disorder, it might also be time to get professional support from a mental health provider.”
2. Learning to speak assertively
When you dismiss personal concerns or distress, it can lead to bottling up emotions that go along with those thoughts.
“You may have sentiments you want to convey but don’t because you prioritize your partner’s feelings over your own,” says Rosenberg. “It can pose problems since it can spark conflicts.”
She recommends learning to speak assertively to help make emotional demands simpler.
Example of speaking assertively, but not aggressively: “That decision makes me uncomfortable because…”
Your needs are important, but most of the time people won’t know what they are if you don’t speak up. Asking for what you need is OK. You matter.
3. Practicing grounding and relaxation techniques
Grounding techniques use sensory stimulation to help bring you back to a state of calm.
If you’re experiencing an emotional outburst, try to interrupt the flow of emotions with a grounding technique like:
- running icy water on your hands
- closing your eyes and tapping your chest
- slowly counting backwards from 100
- repeating a favorite saying, positive affirmation, or mantra
- engaging in body scan meditation
- focusing on how your body feels, starting at your toes and running up through to your head
Practicing relaxation techniques on a regular basis can also help you deal with everyday stress before it becomes difficult to manage.
4. Walking away
If you’re overwhelmed by emotion and believe you’ll act out in an unhealthy way, consider excusing yourself for a moment to recollect your thoughts. Sometimes removing yourself from the source of stress is enough. The time and distance can also provide perspective.
You can take a quick walk, sit in the break room, or visit the bathroom.
5. Seeking support
It’s natural to have emotional outbursts every now and then when stress has piled up. But if you’re dealing with emotional pain or feel you’re stressed out all the time, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
They can help you explore the causes of your emotional outbursts, including trauma or undiagnosed mental health conditions. They could also help you develop effective coping skills so you can manage your emotions proactively.
Emotional outbursts in adults can be one-time expressions of piled-up stress, lack of sleep, or low blood sugar. They could also be a symptom of emotional dysregulation or an underlying medical condition.
Speaking with a mental health professional can help you understand the factors contributing to emotional outbursts, while grounding exercises, self-care, and developing assertive communication skills may help you minimize the impact these moments have in your life.