13 Mood Changes That Could Signal Something Serious

From euphoria to despair, here's what your feelings may be trying to tell you about your health.

When we think of serious illnesses and medical conditions, we often assume that the earliest and most pronounced symptoms will be physical in nature. And although we should never ignore physical changes in our bodies, it's equally important to take emotional changes seriously. Though it's easy to dismiss symptoms like nervousness and irritability as the response to a bad day at work or an argument with a friend, mood swings and mood changes can be hallmark signs of illnesses, including Parkinson's, diabetes, and heart disease—not to mention, COVID-19. In fact, according to a July 2020 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that individuals infected with coronavirus may have an increased risk of neuropsychiatric symptoms such as psychosis, depression, and changes in mood. With that in mind, here are some mood changes that could be symptoms of something more serious. And for all the ways you are hindering your happiness, check out 26 Things You're Doing That Are Hurting Your Mental Health.

Feelings of despair: Heart disease

anxious asian woman clutching herself on the couch

A feeling of impending doom can be a sign of heart disease or a heart attack. Laurence Gerlis, MB, CEO and founder of Same Day Doctor in the U.K., explains that this symptom is the result of a loss of oxygen to the brain. And women need to be especially careful: According to the Duke University Health System, women are more likely to experience a feeling of impending doom when they have heart disease or are at risk of a heart attack. And for the things you are doing that are taking a toll on your ticker, check out The 20 Worst Habits That Are Destroying Your Heart.

Depression: Parkinson's disease

Sad older man with his head in his hand

That same dopamine damage that causes mood swings in Parkinson's patients can also cause depression, according to Gerlis. What's more, the Parkinson's Foundation guide notes that depression can occur at any stage of the disease—even before a diagnosis. Many people experience the symptom years before they begin to exhibit the motor issues more commonly associated with Parkinson's. And for things you can do right now to boost your happiness, check out 14 Expert-Backed Ways to Improve Your Mental Health Every Day.

Mood swings: Parkinson's disease


Mood swings are another common sign of Parkinson's disease. According to a comprehensive mood changes guide created by The Parkinson's Foundation, that's because the disease is linked to a lack of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. When dopamine-producing cells in the brain die, it affects both a patient's movement and mood. In the case of Parkinson's disease, mood swings are a symptom of the illness—not a reaction to the diagnosis.

Anxiety: Menopause

sad older white woman sitting on a couch

Jordanna Quinn, DO, medical director at Kore Regenerative Medicine in Colorado, says that when middle-aged women begin to experience anxiety, it may be a sign of looming menopause—even if they continue to have regular menstrual cycles. "Often, women will experience changes in their mood prior to their cycle changing," she explains. According to Cleveland Clinic, this anxiety is caused by the changes in hormone levels—specifically in estrogen and progesterone—that occur during perimenopause and menopause. And for things women can do to improve their overall well-being, check out 100 Easy Ways to Be a (Much) Healthier Woman.

Disorientation: Lung disease

Mature man lost in thought standing outside and looking up

"Patients with chronic lung disease are at an increased risk of confusion and disorientation," says pulmonologist Ragheb Assaly, MD. "For example, when patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) get pneumonia or infections, they develop worsening oxygen levels in the blood," he explains. "This is a known cause of confusion." And for other symptoms related to your breathing, check out 17 Warning Signs Your Lungs Are Trying to Send You.

Apathy: Alzheimer's disease

older asian woman comforting older asian man on couch

"Apathy, or loss of motivation, is arguably the most common change in behavior in Alzheimer's disease but is under-recognized," note Kent State University researchers in a pivotal 2001 paper published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. This mood change goes hand in hand with the cognitive changes Alzheimer's patients experience, and it's caused by the same neurological issues. And for things you can do to stave off cognitive decline, check out 40 Habits to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia After 40.

Irritability: Huntington's disease

man and woman with glasses of wine at home

According to December 2012 research published in Psychiatry Research, irritability is a common symptom of Huntington's disease. Huntington's causes the deterioration and death of cells in certain areas of the brain. Damage to one brain region in particular—the caudate nucleus—can affect a person's ability to control their emotions, thereby making both irritability and emotional outbursts common among Huntington's disease patients.

Irritability: Diabetes

Close up photo of a businessman yelling at his phone while driving

Irritability is also one of the presenting symptoms of diabetes. According to endocrinologist Anis Rehman, MD, this is due to the changes in blood sugar levels that diabetes causes. "Paying attention to subtle signs [like irritability] can help diagnose and treat diabetes to prevent diabetic complications," he says.

Extreme happiness or sadness: Bipolar disorder

Portrait of a pensive senior man sitting on the bench, in the public park, outdoors. Old man relaxing outdoors and looking away. Portrait of senior man looking thoughtful

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings. Emin Gharibian, PsyD, founder and director of Verdugo Psychological Associates, explains that bipolar patients have an imbalance in several neurotransmitters, which causes them to experience mood fluctuations. And for more helpful information, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Short temper: Hypothyroidism

depressed young man sitting on couch and looking away while his wife shouting at him and holding credit card

If you notice that you've become uncharacteristically short-tempered lately, it could be a sign of hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland. According to the British Thyroid Foundation, rapid changes in thyroid hormone levels can cause both irritability and snappiness.

Hormone changes aren't the only reason why people with hypothyroidism can be short-tempered. Stephen B. Hill, DC, who frequently treats thyroid disorders at Hill Functional Medicine in Arizona, explains that other symptoms of hypothyroidism include unexplained weight gain, sleep problems, hair thinning, and sweating. "All of these symptoms are likely to make even the happiest of people moody, anxious, or even depressed," he explains. "Nobody feels good on the outside if they are in pain and don't feel well on the inside."

Nervousness: Hyperthyroidism

man biting his nails

Thyroid hormones like triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) stimulate the nervous system. Therefore, when you have an overactive thyroid, the nervous system becomes overwhelmed, Baltimore-based endocrinologist Marie Bellantoni, MD, notes. "That's why many people with hyperthyroidism feel nervous, jittery, and anxious, sometimes with problems focusing and a pounding heart," she explains. "It's like having your 'fight or flight' system turned on all the time."

Though anxiety, stress, and consuming too much caffeine can result in similar symptoms that aren't related to your thyroid, Bellantoni says it's better to be safe than sorry. "Fortunately the blood tests for thyroid disease are very sensitive and accurate, and we can use those to tell who has hyperthyroidism," she notes.

Euphoria: Multiple sclerosis

woman reading a computer

According to The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, mood changes are a symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS). And though sadness, fear, anxiety, and depression are the most common emotional symptoms of the illness, euphoria can also occur.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society explains that this surprising expression of happiness is the result of cognitive impairment caused by the disease. Patients who experience euphoria are unrealistically happy and appear unconcerned about problems.

Mood changes: Digestive issues

upset middle-aged asian woman sitting on floor
Shutterstock/chayapat karnnet

According to Heather Hagen, LMFT, clinical director at Newport Academy, digestive disorders that affect your body's ability to absorb necessary nutrients—conditions like celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—can cause mood changes and even depression. That's because, as Johns Hopkins Medicine explains, the brain and the gut interact extremely closely. When digestive disorders cause irritation in the GI tract, this "send[s] signals to the central nervous system that trigger mood changes."

Caitlin Flynn
Caitlin Flynn is an award-winning writer and reporter who experienced early age corporate burnout in 2015 and traded New York City for the misty air and superior coffee of Seattle. Read more
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