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What is Emotional Disturbance?

Learn more about common types of emotional disturbance, methods of diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment at Anew treatment center. 

Emotional Disturbance Fundamentals

Emotional disturbance is an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or family. It is often described as a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. Individuals with emotional disorders exhibit inappropriate behavior or feelings under normal circumstances. 

The term "emotional disturbance" often includes schizophrenia.1 Emotional disturbance disorder does not apply to socially maladjusted individuals, except the presence of an emotional disorder has been determined. The emotional disturbance at deliberate self-harm can be characterized by type and degree. This term is as well linked with behavioral disorders.2

Emotional Disturbance 

How Common Is Emotional Disturbance?

1 in 10 (10%) or about six million people in the United States have had emotional disturbances at some point in their life. School-aged kids and adults experience this disorder in varying degrees.

In School-Aged Children

One in 10 children in the United States experience emotional disturbance. They are most likely to require treatment and appropriate mental health services.3

Data showed that 5.4% of students with disabilities in the school year 2018-19 were identified with emotional disturbance. States reported a range from 1.6% to 17.36% of students with disabilities identified with various emotional disturbance disorders.4

In Adults

Emotional disturbance in adults is relatively standard. Young adults aged 18-25 years had the highest prevalence of emotional disorder (9.7%) compared to adults aged 26-46 years (6.9%) and aged 50 and older (3.4%). While major depression can develop at any age, the average onset is the mid-20s. Approximately 18% of adults ages 18-54 each year have severe emotional disorders.5

Common Types of Emotional Disturbances

Emotional disturbance is a commonly used umbrella term for several different mental disorders. Some of the most common types include:

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety can be excessive, persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming. It is an irrational fear which involves everyday situations. These pointers indicate that an individual may have an anxiety disorder, but this is not always the case.

The term "anxiety disorder" covers several difficulties, sharing irrational fear as a core sign. These include panic disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia), and specific phobias.

Bipolar Disorders

These are severe medical conditions that cause dramatic mood swings, often with periods of normal moods. Extreme changes in energy and behavior disorders go along with these mood changes. They range from depressive lows to manic highs. The term is also known as manic-depressive illness. Psychosocial treatment over time can stabilize these mood swings. 

Conduct Disorder

Children and adolescents with signs of this disorder have great difficulty behaving in a socially acceptable way. It involves a group of repetitive and persistent emotional and behavioral problems. Individuals with conduct disorders have great difficulty in showing empathy. These persons show aggression toward both people and animals, destroy properties, and find it hard to adhere to rules and societal norms. 

Childhood-onset and adulthood onset are categories under this. If the latter is not treated quickly, it could lead to a poorer prognosis. 

Eating Disorders

They are characterized by extremes in eating behavior disorders, varying from eating too much or too little. In addition, feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape at times develop as signs of this condition. 

Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa are the two most common eating disorders. The latter is characterized by self-starvation, while the former is characterized by frequent binge eating cycles. Both conditions can be potentially life-threatening.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is sometimes considered an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts and compulsive, repetitive behaviors. Repetitive behaviors such as counting, cleaning, etc., are often performed. These actions, however, provide only temporary relief, and non-performance increases anxiety. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can be a result of chemical imbalance in the brain.

Psychotic Disorders

Disconnection from reality characterizes these disorders. Psychosis may occur as a result of a psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia. It causes abnormal thinking and perceptions. Two main symptoms of this disorder are: 6

  • Delusions (false beliefs)
  • Hallucinations (false perceptions)

What Causes Emotional Disturbance?

Although several factors have been suggested and researched, the actual cause of emotional disturbance is often unknown. These factors include:

Family Environment

Effective parenting and guidance are vital in the healthy development of children. Some, if not most, of the actions of people involved in children's formative years affect the resultant emotional state of children. A productive environment consisting of:  

  • Significant, chronic stress in the home
  • The authoritarian style of parenting 
  • Disinterested, distant parents
  • More damaging than positive interactions in the home

This can lead to a high probability of an individual developing an emotional disorder. 


Unhealthy eating patterns can cause mood swings. Sticking to this pattern allows for mood fluctuations, inability to focus, and an overall unhappy outlook. There is a strong association between a poor diet and emotional disorders. A shortage of essential nutrients may limit the proper functioning of the body. 

Miscellaneous and Environmental Factors

Several other factors, such as brain disorders, hereditary stress, trauma, etc., can also lead to emotional disturbances.7

Emotional Disturbance Symptoms and Characteristics 

Depending on the specific mental disorder involved, a person's socio-physical and cognitive skills may also be intensely affected. These symptoms vary from mild to emotionally severe clinical presentations.  Some of the characteristics and symptoms exhibited by individuals who have emotional problems will be detailed below.

Common Emotional Disturbance Symptoms

Common indicators of emotional disturbance include:

  • Hyperactivity characterized by a short attention span and impulsiveness
  • Aggression to both animals and humans, including self-injurious behavior
  • Difficulty in learning
  • Temper tantrums and poor coping skills
  • Withdrawal from social events due to excessive fear or anxiety

Serious Emotional Disturbance Symptoms

Individuals with the most severe emotional disturbances may exhibit certain behaviors which continue over long periods. Examples of these symptoms include:8

  • Distorted Thinking: A habitual way of thinking which is often inaccurate and negatively biased
  • Excessive Anxiety: Being overly sensitive to issues, which leads to unpleasant surprises
  • Abnormal Mood Swings: These include serious mood shifts that threaten the well-being of an emotionally disturbed individual

How Is Emotional Disturbance Diagnosed?

Mental health professionals can evaluate persons to determine if they have a behavioral disorder. This is done using functional behavioral assessments, which help address emotional disorders.

Emotional Disturbance Criteria 

The individuals that are to be tested for emotional problems must have experienced some of the following:

  • Inappropriate actions or emotions under normal circumstances
  • Learning difficulties that are not caused by another health factor
  • A general feeling of unhappiness or depression, etc.
Emotional Disturbance 

Treatment For Emotional Disturbance at Anew Treatment Center

Treatment to be carried out will often vary depending on the different individuals being treated, symptoms they exhibit, and severity. Emotional disorders are typically treated with a combination of medications and psychosocial interventions. 


This involves personal interaction with an expertly trained therapist. Cognitive therapy aims at helping individuals unlearn self-defeating attitudes and behavior. This process reinforces desirable behaviors by generally improving the patient's emotional disability outlook. 

Therapy may include social skills training. For example, it allows socio-phobic individuals to practice being more self-assertive, approachable, and communicative. Individual therapy as well is usually complemented by family counseling. The whole family must be placed under treatment to aid the fast-healing process. Group therapy led by a trained counselor provides the family with opportunities to heal from an emotional disturbance diagnosis.9


Certain severe emotional disturbances may benefit from medication-based intervention. For instance, ADHD medications can help reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity while improving attention span. It can also help with the ability to focus, work, and learn.

Prescribed medications play a vital role in the treatment of emotional disorders. The patient must also decide to go through with taking medications. Well-known stimulants used to treat emotional disturbance include a combination of amphetamine and methamphetamine, known as Adderall, Methylphenidate, known as Concerta or Ritalin.10

Finding Help

Anew Treatment Center in St. Paul, MN, offers health services. From residential to outpatient treatment programs. Our services are specifically designed to help individuals seek help, recover, and manage various mental health conditions.

For the effective treatment of emotional disturbances, expert care is needed. We at Anew Treatment Center are experienced in handling acute conditions, such as emotional and behavioral disorders. Call us today. 

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