Many think borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a consistent switch from one personality subset to another. However, that is far from the truth. Changes between personality are NOT consistent and are often caused by a borderline personality disorder trigger.
In this article, we’re going to explore what a borderline personality disorder trigger is and how to manage it. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is Borderline Personality Disorder?
BPD is a mental illness that exhibits longtime patterns of shifting moods, distortion of self image, and changes in behaviors. Symptoms are caused by increasingly impulsive actions and breakdowns in professional, personal, and romantic relationships. ¹
Those that struggle with BPD experience episodes of intense emotions. Alongside this, they may also experience anger, depression and anxiety. These symptoms can last for a short period of time (a few hours) to long periods (days to weeks). ²
BPD comes with a range of symptoms that are experienced in episodes. While everyone will undergo BPD symptoms differently, there are a common set most document. These include: ³
- Black and white thinking (sometimes referred to as “splitting”)
- Distorted self-image
- Feelings of emptiness
- Frantically avoiding abandonment
- Impulsive behaviors
- Intense mood swings
- Irritability (uncontrollable anger)
- Suicidal ideation and/or self-harm
What Causes BPD?
Scientists and researchers haven’t found a fundamental reason for why people experience BPD. Still, they have agreed there are a number of key factors that might point to what causes BPD. These include: ⁴
- Brain Function – Due to advances in medical technology, researchers have found the emotional regulation system to be different in people with BPD. With this understanding, there could be a neurological basis for some of the symptoms. Specifically, the portions of the brain that control emotions and decision-making/judgment may not communicate optimally with one another.
- Environmental and Social Factors – Of those diagnosed with BPD, many have a history of past trauma. This can include poor living conditions and previous abuse.
- Genetics – Genetics have been found to be responsible for a number of mental disorders, including BPD. If anyone in your family has BPD (i.e. parent, cousin, etc.), there’s an increased chance of you having it.
What are Borderline Personality Disorder Triggers?
Now that we have a general understanding of BPD, we must come to understand what sparks this disorder into motion. The agreed upon term for the causation of BPD symptoms are triggers. These are internal or external stressors that propel individuals into a BPD episode.
Most BPD triggers fall into several common categories, including:
Interpersonal Relationship Triggers
Most people who experience interpersonal relationship stressors fear abandonment. In fact, it’s noted that relationships for those with BPD are difficult due to the interpersonal relationship triggers that can arise during romantic entanglements.
Abandonment sensitivity is a common issue with BPD relationships and it can greatly affect the vitality and strength of your relationship. In fact, it’s so common that many couples have reported on it.
Abandonment sensitivity is a concern of abandonment from those that have a relationship with a BPD sufferer. Individuals with BPD commonly have fears and anxiety about abandonment (i.e. the loss of friends, family members, and loved ones). This abandonment sensitivity is a common problem in relationships involving BPD. ⁵
Control Over People and Situations
Coupled by the abandonment sensitivity is a heightened desire to try and control people and situations. More often than not, this is for the patient’s benefit and overall peace of mind.
A common complaint is that those dating someone with BPD feel stifled, suffocated, and smothered by their partners. This is due to their consistent need to try and have some sort of control over what is usually uncontrollable.
It can also appear as a fear that they may be being unfaithful or that their partner will leave them.
Suspicions, Judgements, and Reactions
Some people with BPD may have unsubstantiated claims of paranoia that take on the form of suspicion, judgment, and over-reactions. While this is common among those who struggle with BPD, it can take a toll within relationships. Most of these scenarios are borne out of the abandonment sensitivity that we discussed earlier.
Although it’s great to find ways to be together, it’s also important to try and carve out alone time. When you’re in an active relationship with another person, it’s wise to find ways to cope that also incorporates the other half of the couple. Of course, coping mechanisms work differently for everyone. It helps to experiment around with a few different techniques in order to figure out what works best for you.
Cognitive triggers often arise from those that have BPD stemming from past trauma, especially in those with a history of child abuse. Links to past traumatic events (i.e. images, locations, or people) that remind the sufferer of said trauma can be triggering for a BPD patient. Most of the cognitive triggers aren’t perpetrated by an individual or an event that is currently ongoing. Rather, they are distressing emotional responses stemming from one’s own past.
Current research shows cognitive triggers can change neurological processes. In turn, this will lead to a change in actions and behaviors. ⁶
The most common cognitive triggers are borne out of personal experiences that are usually unpleasant. Many feel that avoidance behaviors are the best way to try and combat these kinds of triggers, but it can actually make for more tenuous episodes.
If you struggle with repeated cognitive triggers, we recommend you acknowledge these memories. By facing them head-on and analyzing why these triggers affect you in such a way, you may find the means to overcome these triggers.
You may find exposure therapy and cognitive-behavioral training to be beneficial for cognitive triggers. Taking these measures can help change repetitive behaviors by rationalizing actions and addressing fears of facing said complications. ⁷
What is a Borderline Personality Disorder Episode?
BPD episodes vary from person to person and include several different key characteristics. These include: ⁸
- A shift in overall emotional state (i.e. going from one emotional extreme to another, like happy and upbeat to dower and depressed).
- Chronic and overwhelming feelings of emptiness or abandonment.
- Efforts to avoid abandonment. For example, you may cut off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned.
- Attempts to isolate themselves away from their perceived threats of disruptions to their status quo.
- Impulsive and compulsive actions that seem to ease anxieties. These can include reckless driving, excessive spending, or binge eating.
- An increase in irritability. This rise in anger can result in outbursts and confrontations.
- People with BPD may put themselves through self-harm to avoid negative symptoms. In extreme cases, this can lead to:
How to Manage Borderline Personality Disorder Triggers
When trying to control the effects of a BPD episode, it’s key to understand coping techniques. Coping techniques are ways in which people go about trying to manage difficult times and situations.
Oftentimes, coping techniques are utilized for cases that are brought on by trauma. In turn, those struggling must learn to handle the stress of dealing with said trauma or traumatic situations. ⁹ We have compiled an outline to different kinds of triggers and recommended methods to try and cope with said triggers. ¹⁰
Methods for Anxiety & Dissociative Symptoms
A common symptom of BPD is recurring bouts of anxiety that can grow to uncomfortable and uncontrollable levels. If you or someone you love is experiencing waves of uncontainable anxiety, there are some methods to combat it:
- Talk to someone you trust, either a family member, a friend or mental health professional.
- Look after your physical health.
- Exercising can relieve stress and release endorphins like dopamine in the brain which can help ease anxiety.
- Try relaxation techniques.
- Breathing exercises (such as deep breathing and scaled breathing) have shown to lower stress levels by relaxing the mind and body. The University of Michigan has outlined several different breathing techniques that may help you.
- Take a warm bath or shower. The change in temperature body submersion has shown to reduce anxiety.
- Try grounding activities in order to center yourself and realign with the moment.
- One way to center yourself and take back control is to make a consistent diary or journal. Through this, you can track your day-to-day life, activities, and successes.
- Chew on a piece of ginger or chili and notice the strong smell and taste.
- Clap your hands and notice the stinging sensation.
- Drink a glass of ice cold water.
- Walk barefoot inside on soft carpet, cool hardwood floors, or go outside and feel the green grass underfoot. This will help to ground yourself.
Methods for Anger and Outbursts
It is common for those with BPD to have anger issues which can result in outbursts that can be disruptive and in some cases violent. There are ways to curb anger and to reduce the frequency of outbursts:
- Identify the triggers that make you angry, frustrated, or have resulted in rage.
- Give yourself time to think and rationalize the reasons for your anger and figure out ways to resolve the issue at hand.
- Try calming centering techniques to ground yourself.
- Breathe slowly and deeply, allowing oxygen to fill your lungs and giving you a moment to slow down.
- Exert the angry energy:
- Rip up a piece of newspaper.
- Hit a pillow.
- Throw ice cubes into the bath so they smash.
- Visualize a relaxing memory or use your imagination.
- Practice anger management skills.
Emotional Distress & Self Harm Situations
- Notice and come to understand the sensations that develop within your brain and body.
- Tell yourself that you accept these emotions.
- Understand that the feelings are temporary.
- Accept that just because you feel something doesn’t mean it’s your permanent reality.
- Track your compulsions to self harm and the emotions that come with it.
- Identify effective physiological distractions that work best for you and the situation.
- Rub ice over where you want to hurt yourself.
- Sticky tape or plaster your skin and peel it off.
- Take a cold bath.
- Deep breathing.
- Develop your own unique coping methods that can calm your compulsions.
- Keep a diary or journal that can help ground and vent your frustrations.
- Establish an exercise regimen where you can exert nervous or compulsive energy towards self-development.
- Take a nap.
- Relax with an activity that can quell compulsions and redirect your attention towards something productive.
- In serious cases, contact a mental health professional or emergency services.
How Can You Help Others Manage BPD Triggers?
It is only reasonable that those who have a loved one who’s experiencing BPD symptoms would want to reach out and give support in any way that they can. However, supporting someone with BPD can be a struggle in it itself. Those who suffer from BPD oftentimes have a wide range of emotions and reactions which can make support difficult.
Here are a few important factors to keep in mind:
The first and most impactful step to try to support those with BPD is to reach out to them. It sounds simple enough – yet, it can be more difficult than one immediately assumes.
Reaching out requires you to first understand BPT and recognize its symptoms and challenges. There are a number of great resources out there for you to look into. With these, you’ll want to develop as much knowledge about this condition as possible. This will allow you to identify an individual’s particular needs and struggles. ¹¹
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone with BPD is sit down and listen to what they have to say. By giving a compassionate ear and listening with empathy, those who are lost in their diagnosis can feel supported and cared for.
Such actions can provide a person with a safe space to vent and explain their difficulties without feeling judged, mocked, or resented. Sometimes this will reveal a difficult episode that involves outbursts and rants. In such moments, it’s vital you keep a level-headed attitude that’s ready to shift the conversation towards healing. ¹²
Seeking & Supporting Treatment
It’s vital your loved one is receiving the treatment they need. If they refuse such treatment, it’s important to avoid confrontations.
A person is more likely to have a positive reaction when they’re met with compassion. By reinforcing mental health treatment in a positive light, you have a much better chance at garnering their interest.
If you’re new to seeking out mental health treatment, we’ve compiled a general list of questions to ask yourself: ¹³
- Where is the facility located?
- Is it community- or hospital-based?
- Is the program outpatient, day, or residential?
- What are the admission criteria and how does your loved one get referred to the facility?
- What type and length of program(s) is offered? Is it a specialized treatment program for BPD?
- What languages are services offered in? Are translation services available?
- What levels of professional staff are employed by the facility?
- Is there an aftercare or continuing care program?
- What level of involvement is available to family members? Is there a program for family members?
- If your affected family member is female, is a female therapist available for individual counseling?
- If your affected family member is female and treatment is offered in groups, are they (co-)facilitated by a female therapist?
- Is the program residential and what are the sleeping accommodations?
- If your affected family member has dependent children, is there any child care and/or programming available for children?
- Is there a fee?
These questions can give valuable information that offer you and your loved one a framework for how treatment functions.
One of the biggest struggles with BPD is a shift in one’s emotional state. Such difficulties are sometimes better dealt with alone and, with that, it’s recommended you give your loved one some boundaries.
Discussing these boundaries can be worthwhile for both parties as they’ll allow for a long-term understanding of where to draw the line. Through these, you can understand what’s expected from a relationship and how to continue with the relationship in a healthy manner. ¹⁴
It’s important to reaffirm that your relationship isn’t ending. As mentioned, many with BPD struggle with abandonment issues. Instead, you’ll want to reaffirm that the relationship is treasured, valued, and far from ending.
Of course, it’s also important for you to make clear that you have a life of your own and boundaries you’d prefer. Always remind your loved one that a relationship is a two-way street and emotional support cannot always go in one direction.
Resources for Those Seeking to Assist with BPD
If you’re looking for further resources concerning BPD, we highly recommend the following:
- NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Health) has guides available for those trying to support those struggling with BPD. They recommend learning more about this disorder, what treatment options are available, and how to seek out those options. They also give guides on how to talk to those with BPD, how to lend a compassionate ear, and how to best deal with the shifting emotions.
- The Mind Organization of the United Kingdom is a nonprofit mental health advocacy group whose mission is to destigmatize and support those suffering from mental health. They provide information and treatment options for various mental health conditions. They also have resources for those who trying to help, including a guide to supporting others with BPD.
BPD and its episodic nature of mental turmoil can be extremely disruptive to one’s daily life and taxing on the relationships they form with others. However, when one is understanding of their triggers, it can make the struggle less burdensome.
We hope our guide on borderline personality disorder triggers has given you a better understanding of the fight you’re up against. If you’d like to learn more about BPD, we’ve developed a number of other articles on the topic to help you.
Still have questions about controlling BPD triggers?
We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further knowledge on this topic – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Mental Health Services: Borderline Personality Disorder Overview
² The National Center for Biotechnology Information: Borderline Personality Disorder: Treatment and Management.
³ MedLinePlus via US National Library of Medicine: Borderline Personality Disorder
⁴ National Health Services of the United Kingdom: Causation of Borderline Personality Disorder
⁵ Sage Medical Research Journals: Reviewing the clinical significance of ‘fear of abandonment’ in borderline personality disorder
⁶ The National Center for Biotechnology Information: Emotional Processes in Borderline Personality Disorder: An Update for Clinical Practice
⁷ Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies: ABCT Fact Sheet for Borderline Personality Disorder
⁸ National Health Services of the United Kingdom: Borderline Personality Disorder – Symptoms
⁹ The MIND Foundation of the United Kingdom: Borderline personality disorder (BPD) Self Care
¹⁰ Borderline in the Act Foundation: Self Management of BPD
¹¹ Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute: 9 Strategies for Supporting Someone with BPD
¹² HelpGuide: Helping Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
¹³ Canada Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: An Informational Guide for Families on Borderline personality disorder
¹⁴ Clearview Women’s Center for BPD: Setting Boundaries When a Friend Has Borderline Personality Disorder