Borderline Personality Disorder: Why They Don't “Get Used to It.”

At the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York this year, I learned about a new finding from one study with patients who exhibit borderline personality disorder (BPD). The same finding also applied, although to a lesser degree, to those with avoidant personality disorder (AVD), which is pretty much identical to the diagnosis of Social Phobia.  I suspect that the reasons for the similar findings may be different for the two disorders.The finding involved a part of the brain called the Amygdala. This little doohickey is central to a lot of brain functions, but in particular, it is the center for the body’s “fight or flight” response. I always though it fascinating  that the amygdala also has specific cells which respond only to one’s own mother (or other primary female attachment figure) and nothing and nobody else, and other specific cells which respond onlyto one’s father (or other primary male attachment figure).  Although one cannot prove such things, this fact suggests to me that primary attachment figures may be the most potent of all of the environmental triggers to fear-based flight or fight reactions. They are certainly more powerful that a therapist can ever be for doing so, for instance.The finding may relate to one of the primary symptoms of BPD, which goes by a variety of names. In the actual DSM criteria, it is described as “affective instability, or marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days.)” It is also called high reactivity, and lay people often label it hypersensistivity. In psychological tests, it is called neuroticism. Clearly, amygdala activation is intrinsic to this phenomenon.Therapists have a tendency to think that patients with BPD over-react because they misperceive the behavior of others as being emotional slights, when the behavior is not at all meant as such. In fact, these therapists do not even know to what exactly the patient may be reacting to, or alternatively, that sometimes patients with BPD feign such reactions in order to provoke a specific response in others in order to recruit them to be enablers of the patients’ spoilerrole.For example, one patient would go ballistic if anyone ever even implied that her mother might have been a loving parent. Of course, if one knew all the horrible things her mother had done to her, one could easily see why she would find such a comment annoying - to say the least!The study I am discussing here is by Harold Koenigsberg and others (Journal of the American Psychiatric Association 171:82-90, January 2014). Study participants were asked to look at a series of pictures with either highly negative or neutral content, and the activation of the amygdala and another region of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate was measured using a specific type of brain scan. The subjects also subjectively rated their emotional responses to the pictures.  Exposure to these pictures and these measurements were then repeated. Repeated only once, I’m afraid. The study would have been a lot more powerful if they had repeated the exposure several times.The changes in emotional arousal and brain activation after a repeat viewing of the negative images was small but signficantly different between patients with BPD or AVD and the "normal" control subjects.  The brains of the controls seemed to habituate, while those of the patients with BPD did not.  Habituation means that the controls got used to or became accustomed to the awful pictures, and their arousal levels decreased from what it had been after the initial viewing.If anything, the emotional arousal of patients with BPD actually increased with the repeat viewing.This finding, if it can be replicated, might seem to indicate that the brains of those with BPD might be abnormal in this regard. However, as I have ranted in the past, a difference is not automatically indicative of an abnormality. In fact, it may be a conditioned response that is highly adaptive in particular environments.In the case of patients with BPD in particular, they invariable grow up in chaotic family environments in which “getting used” to the chaos and not reacting to it when one needs to could be hazaradous to their and their family’s health, as described in my post on Error Management Theory.  If the chaos continues, such individuals need to pay even more attention to it, not less. This new research finding fits my ideas about that to a tee.


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