Borderline personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of instability and hypersensitivity in interpersonal relationships, instability in self-image, extreme mood fluctuations, and impulsivity. Diagnosis is by clinical criteria. Treatment is with psychotherapy and drugs.
Patients with borderline personality disorder have an intolerance of being alone; they make frantic efforts to avoid abandonment and generate crises, such as making suicidal gestures in a way that invites rescue and caregiving by others.
Reported prevalence of borderline personality disorder varies but is probably between 1.7 to 3% in the general population, but up to 15 to 20% in patients being treated for mental health disorders. In clinical settings, 75% of patients with this disorder are female, but in the general population, the ratio of men to women is 1:1.
Stresses during early childhood may contribute to the development of borderline personality disorder. A childhood history of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, separation from caregivers, and/or loss of a parent is common among patients with borderline personality disorder.
Certain people may have a genetic tendency to have pathologic responses to environment life stresses, and borderline personality disorder clearly appears to have a heritable component. First-degree relatives of patients with borderline personality disorder are 5 times more likely to have the disorder than the general population. Disturbances in regulatory functions of the brain and neuropeptide systems may also contribute but are not present in all patients with borderline personality disorder.
Symptoms and Signs
When patients with borderline personality disorder feel that they are being abandoned or neglected, they feel intense fear or anger. For example, they may become panicky or furious when someone important to them is a few minutes late or cancels an engagement. They think that this abandonment means that they are bad. They fear abandonment partly because they do not want to be alone.
These patients tend to change their view of others abruptly and dramatically. They may idealize a potential caregiver or lover early in the relationship, demand to spend a lot of time together, and share everything. Suddenly, they may feel that the person does not care enough, and they become disillusioned; then they may belittle or become angry with the person. This shift from idealization to devaluation reflects black-and-white thinking (splitting, polarization of good and bad).
Patients with borderline personality disorder can empathize with and care for a person but only if they feel that another person will be there for them whenever needed.
Patients with this disorder have difficulty controlling their anger and often become inappropriate and intensely angry. They may express their anger with biting sarcasm, bitterness, or angry tirades, often directed at their caregiver or lover for neglect or abandonment. After the outburst, they often feel ashamed and guilty, reinforcing their feeling of being bad.
Patients with borderline personality disorder may also abruptly and dramatically change their self-image, shown by suddenly changing their goals, values, opinions, careers, or friends. They may be needy one minute and righteously angry about being mistreated the next. Although they usually see themselves as bad, they sometimes feel that they do not exist at all—eg, when they do not have someone who cares for them. They often feel empty inside.
The changes in mood (eg, intense dysphoria, irritability, anxiety) usually last only a few hours and rarely last more than a few days; they may reflect the extreme sensitivity to interpersonal stresses in patients with borderline personality disorder.
Patients with borderline personality disorder often sabotage themselves when they are about to reach a goal. For example, they may drop out of school just before graduation, or they may ruin a promising relationship.
Impulsivity leading to self-harm is common. These patients may gamble, engage in unsafe sex, binge eat, drive recklessly, abuse substances, or overspend. Suicidal behaviors, gestures, and threats and self-mutilation (eg, cutting, burning) are very common. Although many of these self-destructive acts are not intended to end life, risk of suicide in these patients is 40 times that of the general population; About 8 to 10% of these patients die by suicide. These self-destructive acts are usually triggered by rejection by, possible abandonment by, or disappointment in a caregiver or lover. Patients may self-mutilate to compensate for their being bad or to reaffirm their ability to feel during a dissociative disorder.
Dissociative episodes, paranoid thoughts, and sometimes psychotic-like symptoms (eg, hallucinations, ideas of reference) may be triggered by extreme stress, usually fear of abandonment, whether real or imagined. These symptoms are temporary and usually not severe enough to be considered a separate disorder.
Symptoms lessen in most patients; relapse rate is very low. However, functional status does not usually improve as dramatically.
- Clinical criteria ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition [DSM-5])
For a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, patients must have persistent pattern of unstable relationships, self-image, and emotions (ie, emotional dysregulation) and pronounced impulsivity, as shown by ≥ 5 of the following:
- Desperate efforts to avoid abandonment (actual or imagined)
- Unstable, intense relationships that alternate between idealizing and devaluing the other person
- An unstable self-image or sense of self
- Impulsivity in ≥ 2 areas that could harm themselves (eg, unsafe sex, binge eating, reckless driving)
- Repeated suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats or self-mutilation
- Rapid changes in mood, lasting usually only a few hours and rarely more than a few days
- Persistent feelings of emptiness
- Inappropriately intense anger or problems controlling anger
- Temporary paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms triggered by stress
Also, symptoms must have begun by early adulthood but can occur during adolescence.
Borderline personality disorder is most commonly misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder because of the wide fluctuations in mood, behavior, and sleep. However, in borderline personality disorder, mood and behavior change rapidly in response to stressors, especially interpersonal ones, whereas in bipolar disorder, moods are more sustained and less reactive.
Other personality disorders share similar manifestations. Patients with histrionic personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder can be attention-seeking and manipulative, but those with borderline personality disorder also see themselves as bad and feel empty. Some patients meet criteria for more than one personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder can be distinguished from mood and anxiety disorders based on the negative self-image, insecure attachments, and sensitivity to rejection that are prominent features of borderline personality disorder and are usually absent in patients with a mood or anxiety disorder.
Differential diagnosis for borderline personality disorder also includes substance abuse disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder; many disorders in the differential diagnosis of borderline personality disorder coexist with it.
General Treatment of borderline personality disorder is the same as that for all personality disorders.
Identifying and treating coexisting disorders is important for effective treatment of borderline personality disorder.
The main treatment for borderline personality disorder is psychotherapy.
Many psychotherapeutic interventions are effective in reducing suicidal behaviors, ameliorating depression, and improving function in patients with this disorder.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on emotional dysregulation and lack of social skills. It includes the following:
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (a combination of individual and group sessions with therapists acting as behavior coaches and available on call around the clock)
- Systems training for emotional predictability and problem solving (STEPPS)
Other interventions focus on disturbances in the ways patients emotionally experience themselves and others. These interventions include the following:
- Mentalization-based treatment
- Transference-focused psychotherapy
- Schema-focused therapy
Mentalization refers to people’s ability to reflect on and understand their own state of mind and the state of mind of others. Mentalization is thought to be learned through a secure attachment to the caregiver. Mentalization-based treatment helps patients do the following:
- Effectively regulate their emotions (eg, calm down when upset)
- Understand how they contribute to their problems and difficulties with others
- Reflect on and understand the minds of others
It thus helps them relate to others with empathy and compassion.
Transference-focused psychotherapy centers on the interaction between patient and therapist. The therapist asks questions and helps patients think about their reactions so that they can examine their exaggerated, distorted, and unrealistic images of self during session. The current moment (eg, how patients are relating to their therapist) is emphasized rather than the past. For example, when a timid, quiet patient suddenly becomes hostile and argumentative, the therapist may ask whether the patient noticed a shift in feelings and then ask the patient to think about how the patient was experiencing the therapist and self when things changed. The purpose is
- To enable patients to develop a more stable and realistic sense of self and others
- To relate to others in a healthier way through transference to the therapist
Schema-focused therapy is an integrative therapy that combines cognitive-behavioral therapy, attachment theory, psychodynamic concepts, and emotion-focused therapies. It focuses on lifelong maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving and coping (called schemas), affective change techniques, and the therapeutic relationship, with limited reparenting. The purpose is help patients change their schemas. Therapy has 3 stages:
- Assessment: Identifying the schemas
- Awareness: Recognizing the schemas when they are operating in daily life
- Behavioral change: Replacing negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with healthier ones
Some of these interventions are specialized and require specialized training and supervision. However, some interventions do not; one such intervention, which is designed for the general practitioner, is
- General (or good) psychiatric management
This intervention uses individual therapy once a week and sometimes drugs.
Supportive psychotherapy is also useful. The goal is to establish an emotional, encouraging, supportive relationship with the patient and thus help the patient develop healthy defense mechanisms, especially in interpersonal relationships.
Drugs work best when used sparingly and systematically for specific symptoms.
SSRIs are usually well-tolerated; chance of a lethal overdose is minimal. However, SSRIs are only marginally effective for depression and anxiety in patients with borderline personality disorder.
The following drugs are effective in ameliorating symptoms of borderline personality disorder:
- Mood stabilizers such as lamotrigine: For depression, anxiety, mood lability, and impulsivity
- Antipsychotics: For anxiety, anger, and cognitive symptoms, including transient stress-related cognitive distortions (eg, paranoid thoughts, black-and-white thinking, severe cognitive disorganization)
Benzodiazepines and stimulants also may help relieve symptoms but are not recommended because dependency and drug diversion are risks.
Last full review/revision January 2016 by Lois Choi-Kain, MD
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