Borderline personality disorder is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships. In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III) listed borderline personality disorder as a diagnosable illness for the first time. Most psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use the DSM to diagnose mental illnesses.

Because some people with severe borderline personality disorder have brief psychotic episodes, experts originally thought of this illness as atypical, or borderline, versions of other mental disorders. While mental health experts now generally agree that the name “borderline personality disorder” is misleading, a more accurate term does not exist yet.

Most people who have borderline personality disorder suffer from:

  • Problems with regulating emotions and thoughts
  • Impulsive and reckless behavior
  • Unstable relationships with other people.

People with this disorder also have high rates of co-occurring disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders, along with self-harm, suicidal behaviors, and completed suicides.

According to data from a subsample of participants in a national survey on mental disorders, about 1.6 percent of adults in the United States have borderline personality disorder in a given year.

Borderline personality disorder is often viewed as difficult to treat. However, recent research shows that borderline personality disorder can be treated effectively, and that many people with this illness improve over time.

What are the symptoms of borderline personality disorder?

According to the DSM, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a person must show an enduring pattern of behavior that includes at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating
  • Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior, such as cutting
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
  • Having stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality.

Seemingly mundane events may trigger symptoms. For example, people with borderline personality disorder may feel angry and distressed over minor separations—such as vacations, business trips, or sudden changes of plans—from people to whom they feel close. Studies show that people with this disorder may see anger in an emotionally neutral face and have a stronger reaction to words with negative meanings than people who do not have the disorder.

Suicide and Self-harm

Self-injurious behavior includes suicide and suicide attempts, as well as self-harming behaviors, described below. As many as 80 percent of people with borderline personality disorder have suicidal behaviors,7 and about 4 to 9 percent commit suicide.

Suicide is one of the most tragic outcomes of any mental illness. Some treatments can help reduce suicidal behaviors in people with borderline personality disorder. For example, one study showed that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) reduced suicide attempts in women by half compared with other types of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. DBT also reduced use of emergency room and inpatient services and retained more participants in therapy, compared to other approaches to treatment.

Unlike suicide attempts, self-harming behaviors do not stem from a desire to die. However, some self-harming behaviors may be life threatening. Self-harming behaviors linked with borderline personality disorder include cutting, burning, hitting, head banging, hair pulling, and other harmful acts. People with borderline personality disorder may self-harm to help regulate their emotions, to punish themselves, or to express their pain. They do not always see these behaviors as harmful.

When does borderline personality disorder start?

Borderline personality disorder usually begins during adolescence or early adulthood. Some studies suggest that early symptoms of the illness may occur during childhood. Some people with borderline personality disorder experience severe symptoms and require intensive, often inpatient, care. Others may use some outpatient treatments but never need hospitalization or emergency care. Some people who develop this disorder may improve without any treatment.

Studies suggest early symptoms may occur in childhood.

What illnesses often co-exist with borderline personality disorder?

Borderline personality disorder often occurs with other illnesses. These co-occurring disorders can make it harder to diagnose and treat borderline personality disorder, especially if symptoms of other illnesses overlap with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Women with borderline personality disorder are more likely to have co-occurring disorders such as major depression, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders. In men, borderline personality disorder is more likely to co-occur with disorders such as substance abuse or antisocial personality disorder.13

According to the NIMH-funded National Comorbidity Survey Replication—the largest national study to date of mental disorders in U.S. adults—about 85 percent of people with borderline personality disorder also meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.2

Other illnesses that often occur with BPD include diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.14,15 These conditions are associated with obesity, which is a common side effect of the medications prescribed to treat borderline personality disorder and other mental disorders. For more information, see the section, “How is borderline personality disorder treated?”

What are the risk factors for borderline personality disorder?

Research on the possible causes and risk factors for borderline personality disorder is still at a very early stage. However, scientists generally agree that genetic and environmental factors are likely to be involved.

Studies on twins with borderline personality disorder suggest that the illness is strongly inherited. Another study shows that a person can inherit his or her temperament and specific personality traits, particularly impulsiveness and aggression.  Scientists are studying genes that help regulate emotions and impulse control for possible links to the disorder.

Social or cultural factors may increase the risk for borderline personality disorder. For example, being part of a community or culture in which unstable family relationships are common may increase a person’s risk for the disorder. Impulsiveness, poor judgment in lifestyle choices, and other consequences of BPD may lead individuals to risky situations. Adults with borderline personality disorder are considerably more likely to be the victim of violence, including rape and other crimes.

What studies are being done to improve the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder?

Recent neuroimaging studies show differences in brain structure and function between people with borderline personality disorder and people who do not have this illness. Some research suggests that brain areas involved in emotional responses become overactive in people with borderline personality disorder when they perform tasks that they perceive as negative. People with the disorder also show less activity in areas of the brain that help control emotions and aggressive impulses and allow people to understand the context of a situation. These findings may help explain the unstable and sometimes explosive moods characteristic of borderline personality disorder.

Another study showed that, when looking at emotionally negative pictures, people with borderline personality disorder used different areas of the brain than people without the disorder. Those with the illness tended to use brain areas related to reflexive actions and alertness, which may explain the tendency to act impulsively on emotional cues.

These findings could inform efforts to develop more specific tests to diagnose borderline personality disorder.

How can I help myself if I have borderline personality disorder?

Taking that first step to help yourself may be hard. It is important to realize that, although it may take some time, you can get better with treatment.

To help yourself:

  • Talk to your doctor about treatment options and stick with treatment
  • Try to maintain a stable schedule of meals and sleep times
  • Engage in mild activity or exercise to help reduce stress
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can, as you can
  • Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or family member
  • Tell others about events or situations that may trigger symptoms
  • Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately
  • Identify and seek out comforting situations, places, and people
  • Continue to educate yourself about this disorder.

Sources:

Gunderson JG. A BPD Brief: An Introduction to Borderline Personality Disorder: Diagnosis, Origins, Course, and Treatment. (ed)^(eds). http://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com/documents/A%20BPD%20BRIEF%20revised%202006%20WORD%20version%20–%20Jun%2006.pdf. Accessed on July 30, 2007.
Lenzenweger MF, Lane MC, Loranger AW, Kessler RC. DSM-IV personality disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Sep 15;62(6):553–64.
Paris J, Zweig-Frank H. A 27-year follow-up of patients with borderline personality disorder. Compr Psychiatry. 2001 Nov–Dec;42(6):482–7.
Zanarini MC, Frankenburg FR, Hennen J, Reich DB, Silk KR. The McLean Study of Adult Development (MSAD): overview and implications of the first six years of prospective follow-up. J Personal Disord. 2005 Oct;19(5):505–23.
Meyer B, Pilkonis PA, Beevers CG. What’s in a (neutral) face? Personality disorders, attachment styles, and the appraisal of ambiguous social cues. J Pers Disord. 2004 Aug;18(4):320–36.
Hazlett EA, Speiser LJ, Goodman M, Roy M, Carrizal M, Wynn JK, Williams WC, Romero M, Minzenberg MJ, Siever LJ, New AS. Exaggerated affect-modulated startle during unpleasant stimuli in borderline personality disorder. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Aug 1;62(3):250–5.
Linehan MM, Comtois KA, Murray AM, Brown MZ, Gallop RJ, Heard HL, Korslund KE, Tutek DA, Reynolds SK, Lindenboim N. Two-year randomized controlled trial and follow-up of dialectical behavior therapy vs therapy by experts for suicidal behaviors and borderline personality disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Jul;63(7):757–66.
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