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