Tag Archives: Emotional Dysregulation

‘Amygdala Hijack’ And BPD

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One of the main, and most problematic, symptoms that those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) suffer from is the experiencing of disproportionately intense emotional responses when under stress and an inability to control them or efficiently recover and calm down once such tempestuous emotions have been aroused. This very serious symptom of BPD is also often referred to as emotional dysregulation.

The main theory as to why such problems managing emotions occur is that damage has been done to the development of the brain region known as the amygdala in early life due to chronic trauma and, consequently, this area of the brain having been overloaded and overwhelmed by emotions such as fear and anxiety during early development causing a longterm malfunction which can extend well into adulthood or even endure for the BPD sufferer’s entire lifespan (in the absence of effective therapy).

The damage done to the development of the amygdala means that, as adults, when under stress, BPD sufferers are frequently likely to experience what is sometimes referred to as an emotional highjack or, as in the title of this article, an amygdala hijack.

What Is ‘Amygdala Hijack’ And How Does It Prevent Emotional Calm?

When external stimuli are sufficiently stressful, the amygdala ‘shuts down’ the prefrontal cortex (the prefrontal cortex is responsible planning, decision making and intellectual abilities).

In this way, when a certain threshold of stress is passed (and this threshold in far lower in BPD sufferers than the average person’s) the amygdala (responsible for generating emotions, particularly negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and aggression) essentially ‘takes over’ and ‘overrides’ the prefrontal cortex.

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Above : under sufficient stress the prefrontal cortex (the seat of rational thought) is shut down, leaving the amygdala (the seat of intense, negative emotions like anxiety, fear and aggression) to ‘run riot.’

As such, the prefrontal cortex ‘goes offline’ leaving the BPD sufferer flooded with negative emotional responses and unable to reason, by logic or rational thought processes, his/her way out of them.

When the amygdala is ‘highjacked’ in this way, there are three main signs. These are :

1) An intense emotional reaction to the event (or external stimuli)

2) The onset of this intense emotional reaction is sudden

3) It is not until the BPD sufferer has calmed down and the prefrontal cortex comes ‘back online’  (which takes far longer for him/her than it would for the average person) that s/he realizes his/her response (whilst under ‘amygdala highjacking’) was inappropriate, often giving rise to feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, remorse and regret.

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3 Types Of Emotional Control Difficulties Resulting From Childhood Trauma

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We know that those who suffer significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from emotional dysregulation (ie problems controlling their eemotions) in adulthood compared to those who had a relatively stable upbringing. This is especially true, of course, if they develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as a result of their childhood experiences (BPD is strongly associated with childhood trauma and one of its main symptoms is emotional dysregulation.

It is theorized (and there is much evidence building up which supports the theory) that one main reason childhood trauma causes the person who suffered it to develop problems controlling his/her emotions in later life is that the experience of significant childhood trauma can lead to damage of the brain structure called the amygdala which is responsible for our emotional reactions to events. (It is also thought that the experience of childhood trauma can also damage other areas of the brain that affect our emotional responses, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex). Click here to read my article on this.

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The three types of emotional control difficulties that an individual who has suffered significant childhood trauma may develop are:

1) Severe emotional over-reactions.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state (also known as emotional lability).

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1) Severe emotional over- reactions:

We may react emotionally disproportionately to the things that happen to us. For example, disproportionately angry as a result of what would objectively appear to be very minor provocation, disproportionately anxious in response to a very minor threat or even suicidal behaviour/self-harming behaviour in response to events that the ‘average’ person could take in their stride with little difficulty.

To take a personal example : when I was a teenager I had a minor argument with a friend. As a result, he demanded that I leave his house. Before I knew it, I had punched him. It was only years later (because I’m stupid) that it occurred that I’d reacted as I did because the incident reminded me, on an unconscious level, of my mother throwing me out of the house some years earlier (when I was thirteen years old); in so doing, it had triggered intensely painful feelings associated with the memory of this ultimate rejection.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state:

For example, one minute the individual may be withdrawn, depressed and reticent but then suddenly swing, with little or no provocation, into a highly agitated, angry and voluble state.

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels:

It thought that this is due to problems of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala (in healthy individuals the prefrontal cortex acts efficiently to send messages to the amygdala to reduce its activity once the cause of the emotions is over – the amygdala being a part of the brain which gives rise to emotional responses).

Indeed, it is thought all three of the above problems occur due to brain dysfunction caused, at least in part, by early life trauma.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Intense Emotions.

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One of the main hallmarks of suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD) is the experiencing of  overwhelmingly extreme and intense emotions which are prone to change very rapidly and which the individual has great difficulty controlling. Psychologists call this serious problem emotional dysregulation. Examples include becoming engulfed by powerful feelings of rage in response to events which do not seem to warrant such a strong reaction or becoming excessively anxious over what others are likely to regard as fairly trivial.

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Other emotions which people with BPD frequently experience disproportionately intensely include fear, depression and jealousy.

WHY DO PEOPLE WITH BPD EXPERIENCE SUCH INTENSE EMOTIONS?

There are two main theories that seek to explain why those who suffer from BPD experience such intense emotions; these are :

1) They have a much stronger physical reaction to certain events than average

2) They suffer from distorted thinking in relation to certain events which causes them to misinterpret these events.

Both of these problems are likely to have their foundations in childhood (eg read my article on how childhood trauma can affect the development of the brain).

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

1) The Physical Reaction Interpretation :

It is thought that those who suffer from BPD have far stronger physical responses (eg increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating etc) to any stimuli which induce fear, such as abandonment or threat to safety. This in turn leads to an emotional over-reaction.

Indeed, research has been conducted that shows people who suffer from BPD have a much greater startle response than those who do not suffer from the condition.

2) The Distorted Thinking Interpretation :

There is also research evidence demonstrating that BPD sufferers are much more likely to view events as negative than non-BPD sufferers. According to cognitive-behavioural therapy CBT), how we think about things has a strong impact upon how we feel – therefore, according to this school of thought, it is the BPD sufferer’s overly negative thinking style that leads to his/her emotional turmoil.

Of course, it is likely that both of the above two theories play their part, as probably do some of the theories below.

OTHER THEORIES ABOUT WHY PEOPLE WITH BPD EXPERIENCE SUCH INTENSE EMOTIONS :

I list these theories below :

a) they have a genetic pre-disposition to emotionally over-react

b) studies have shown that people with BPD are much better than those who do not suffer from it at accurately discerning negative expressions on the faces of others. However, they are also more likely to interpret a neutral expression as being negative – this can perhaps evoke feelings of paranoia

c) people with BPD tend to suffer from what may be termed  meta-negative emotions. This means having negative emotions about having negative emotions, or, put more simply, feeling bad about feeling bad. This can lead to a vicious circle which is difficult to brealk free of without the intervention of therapy. Therapies for BPD include cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavioural therapy – both of these therapies are evidence-based.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery