Ok, after posting about book sales recently and stuff like that, now it’s time for a much more substantive post about BPD. Today, I plan to talk about self-regulation and a new study that points out an intriguing aspect of BPD. There has been much talk in the BPD research and clinical community about the “core” of BPD. Once it was thought to be a personality disorder or even an extreme form of PTSD. Dr. Marsha Linehan (the inventor of DBT) talks about dysregulation in a number of systems, the most important of which (in my interpretation) is the emotional regulation system. People with BPD are extremely emotionally sensitive and subject to emotional “cues” or triggers. They seem to have a less tolerant (in the “controls” sense of the word, meaning more highly sensitive) emotional system. They are triggered more easily and the reactions seem to be more intense and longer-lasting. In “When Hope is Not Enough” I compare this feature to a heat-sensing device and say:
The core problem with BPD is poor emotional regulation. That particular problem can cause other symptoms to arise as the person with BPD becomes emotionally dysregulated. This term emotionally dysregulated (or just dysregulated) is used to denote the state in which a person with BPD is overcome with powerful and, at many times, misaligned emotional reactions. Remember that emotions don’t arise on their own; they are based on cues or triggers from the environment and compared by our “emotional immune system” to the meaning of the cue. For a person with BPD, the meaning can be misjudged or, as is more often the case, the sensitivity to emotional cues is greatly heightened.
An example is a heat-sensing system that helps to detect and suppress fires. Sometimes companies will install heat-sensing equipment in addition to smoke detectors so that they can protect assets that need a certain temperature to operate (e.g. computer equipment which might cease working at a high temperature). The setting at which an alarm goes off might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In the case of someone with BPD, the setting (or “tolerance” as it is called in the control community) is naturally set much lower, at say, 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That means that the alarm will be raised much more often and lead to a reaction to the alarm. In other words, people with BPD will experience many, many (what you would consider) false alarms. However, these false alarms seem completely real to them, because their tolerance for emotional triggers is set very low. They are constantly running a fire drill. Unfortunately for you, the BP may drag you along unwillingly and unwittingly for the drill. (Pages 32-33 of WHINE)
As you can see, the position I take in WHINE is that emotional regulation is the “core issue” of BPD. This position is in line with the DBT way of thinking, which is why one of the “modules” of DBT is emotional regulation skills.
The question is today: is emotional regulation at the “core” of BPD? Or does it go deeper than that? Is there a “cause” for emotional regulation? What are the triggers and how does a person with BPD’s internal feelings affect this “systems dysregulation”?
In the American Journal of Psychiatry, Drs. Stanley and Siever recently (January 2010) publish an article entitled “The Interpersonal Dimension of Borderline Personality Disorder: Toward a Neuropeptide Model “ in which they seem to posit (in my interpretation again, since I am a lay person and not a doctor) that this systems dysregulation actually has another cause instead of being a “core cause’ of the disorder. They begin the article like this:
Borderline personality disorder is a complex disorder associated with substantial morbidity, mortality, and public health costs. Prominent symptoms include suicidal behavior, nonsuicidal self-injury, aggressive outbursts, and emotional reactivity, all of which typically manifest in an interpersonal context. For several years, there has been an ongoing discussion about whether impulsive aggression or affective dysregulation is at the core of the disorder. While these factors are important in borderline personality disorder, it is the exquisite interpersonal sensitivity that frequently triggers both dysregulated affect and impulsive behaviors, which suggests that this sensitivity perhaps rests at the core of the disorder and may in turn drive impulsivity and dysregulated affect.
They go on to say this:
It is noteworthy that many symptoms in the interpersonal domain of borderline personality disorder are actually manifestations of intrapersonal difficulties (e.g., difficulty being alone and misperception of the intentions of others as malevolent), and this dimension could perhaps be reconceptualized as “intrapersonal dysfunction.” We suggest that an internal feeling of well-being, stability, and self-regulation in borderline personality disorder is tenuous and may rely heavily on a sense of interpersonal contact and connectedness.
So, what’s afoot here? What are they saying and what does it mean to the nons of the world?
It seems to me that they are saying two very important things about BPD that has previously been “unnoticed” as DBT has reigned the clinical community. These are:
- “…it is the exquisite interpersonal sensitivity that frequently triggers both dysregulated affect and impulsive behaviors, which suggests that this sensitivity perhaps rests at the core of the disorder and may in turn drive impulsivity and dysregulated affect.” Basically, that the interpersonal sensitivity is the “control” of is sensitive to the (emotional) heat.
- “We suggest that an internal feeling of well-being, stability, and self-regulation in borderline personality disorder is tenuous and may rely heavily on a sense of interpersonal contact and connectedness.” That means that the lack of internal well-being makes the person with BPD sensitive to interpersonal cues.
What do those two important factors mean to you – the loved one or family member? In my mind they mean that a person with BPD uses people in close personal relationships to self-regulate. In other words, being unable to self-regulate internally, they look to external people to regulate their emotions, reactions, sense of well-being and behavior. They believe at some level that you, the loved one, is an extension of their mind, emotions and feelings and assume to you “should know what to do” when they are feeling dysregulated.
What SHOULD you do when this situation occurs? What should you do when they are triggered? What should you avoid?
I believe that the most effective answer is to help them learn to self-regulate and self-validate. This “lack of well-being” is an unpleasant feeling (I would imagine) and probably feels like a HUGE lack of control. I mean, if a person has to rely on other (unpredictable) people to self-regulate, how must that feel? Having compassion for that feeling is definitely a goal. However, before that comes (and it can be cultivated BTW), one can listen, ask, redirect the choice, validate, normalize and cheer lead when appropriate. Don’t defend or minimize. Living a life in which you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop has got to be unpleasant.