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A primer on Emotional Dysregulation and its role in Borderline Personality Disorder

Emotional Dysregulation and BPD

What is important for Non-BPDs to realize about BPD-like conditions and disorders is that they have a core component in common, which is called emotional dysregulation. A disturbance to one’s emotional regulation system can exhibit itself in a number of ways, and the behavior of the borderline (a person with BPD) and the feelings of the Non-BPD are generally confused and misunderstood unless seen through a lens of emotional dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation is not a “grand excuse” to remove responsibility from a disordered person. No, it’s a “grand explanation” to explain the reflexive (yet often confusing) behavior of a disordered person. It’s a way of understanding the motivations (reflexive behavior to stop powerful emotions – which is what IAAHF means) and the intent (to get out of pain).

I put the words emotional dysregulation in bold because that concept is vital for the Non-BPD to understand what BPD is all about. What upsets the Non-BPDs most about the disorder is the behaviors associated with BPD – raging, lying, substance abuse, unfaithfulness, dangerous risk-taking and others. The Non-BPDs feel put-upon and under siege, yet what motivates the behaviors of the borderline is that they are awash with negative emotional states. They have a reduced capacity to regulate their emotions.

Dr. Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), states it this way:

The components of emotion vulnerability are sensitivity to emotional stimuli, emotional intensity, and slow return to emotional baseline. “High sensitivity” refers to the tendency to pick up emotional cues, especially negative cues, react quickly, and have a low threshold for emotional reaction. In other words, it does not take much to provoke an emotional reaction. “Emotional intensity” refers to extreme reactions to emotional stimuli, which frequently disrupt cognitive processing and the ability to self soothe. “Slow return to baseline” refers to reactions being long lasting, which in turn leads to narrowing of attention towards mood-congruent aspects of the environment, biased memory, and biased interpretations, all of which contribute to maintaining the original mood state and a heightened state of arousal.

Essentially what you’re dealing with is someone who reacts strongly and emotionally to the slightest provocation, who will dwell on those intense emotional reactions for periods longer than you might. A person with BPD-like traits heats up quickly and cools down slowly. I’m sure that if you have been dealing with such a person for an extended period of time, you will have noticed that she seems to fly off the handle at the slightest comment or action, no matter how unintended the “offense.”

Someone with BPD will be more sensitive to emotional cues and triggers from the environment, will react more intensely to these cues, and will take longer to “return to baseline,” or will be under the effects of strong emotions for longer than other, less emotionally-reactive people. Many times, because of the low tolerance for emotional cues or triggers, the person with BPD will react with alarm even though their emotional reaction does not match the reality of the environment.

We all have emotions and react emotionally to events in our lives. That’s one of the things that makes us human and that we all share – disordered or not. What separates us is our emotional profile. A person with BPD gets into powerful emotional states more easily than other people, and her reactive period lasts longer than with other people. A person with BPD is like a cork floating on a stormy sea of negative emotions and her emotional profile is like a volcano. Yet, one has to understand that the emotions feel as real as any other emotional reaction even if the intensity is high. A person reacting to emotional states will, for the most part or until they train themselves to do otherwise, react in the natural fashion that anyone would react to strong emotions: attack with anger, flee with fear, withdrawal with sadness and rejoice with joy.

(adapted from When Hope is Not Enough)

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