Tag Archives: Emotional Dysregulation

‘Amygdala Hijack’ And BPD

amygdala hijack

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.

amygdala hijack

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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Emotional Intensity Disorder

emotional intensity disorder

Many who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (a condition strongly associated with a history of significant and long-lasting childhood trauma) resent the label, preferring instead to consider themselves as having complex posttraumatic stress disorder (although this diagnosis has still to be formally acknowledged and is not yet included in the DSMDiagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Illness) or, more recently, emotional intensity disorder.

This is largely due to the fact that many patients and clinicians consider the label borderline personality disorder to be stigmatizing, demeaning and even insulting as it seems to imply the person’s whole personality (and, perhaps, by extension, character), is fundamentally flawed, giving him/her the status of social outcast and pariah – this, of course, can only exacerbate their isolation, and illness, further. NOT HELPFUL! (Especially as it is the experience of profound rejection, often by parents and other family members, which has contributed to the illness in the first place.

emotional intensity disorder

Other terms have also been considered to replace the borderline personality disorder label; I list these below :

– emotionally unstable personality disorder (not much of an improvement, it has to be said!)

– emotional regulation disorder

– emotional dysregulation disorder

– impulsive personality disorder

– impulsive emotional dysregulation disorder

Emotional Problems Of Those With BPD :

So, what emotional problems do people with BPD suffer? Below, I attempt to summarize them:

– rapid and dramatic mood swings

explosive rage and anger, even in response to (objectively speaking) minor provocations

– emotions so intense the individual experiencing them feels ‘out of control’

– incongruous emotional displays (such as crying at times that the majority of people would find ‘inappropriate’).

– experiencing of strong emotions which seem to ‘come out of nowhere.’

– suicidal impulses


– feelings of ’emptiness’

intense psychological pain (often this leads to ‘self-medicating’ behaviour (i.e. excessive use of drugs and/or alcohol)

– extreme fear of abandonment


– impulsivity

(The above list is not exhaustive; to read my article on borderline personality disorder, click here).

What Causes These Emotional Problems?

– imbalances in the brain of certain chemicals ; in particular, dopamine and serotonin

– childhood trauma (such as neglect, abuse, rejection, loss, grief and abandonment)

– further research needs to be conducted on the contribution of genes

How Common Are These Problems?

About one in every fifty people suffer from these severe emotional problems I refer to above. Also, women are about three times more likely to suffer from them than men. For most sufferers, the condition improves once the individual approaches middle-age.

Currently, one of the most effective treatments for borderline personality disorder is dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). Many sufferers also find mindfulness training and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helpful.

Childhood Trauma Leading To Emotional Dysregulation In Adulthood :

If we have suffered significant and chronic childhood trauma we are at increased risk, as adults, of suffering from ’emotional dysregulation.’

What Is Meant By The Term ‘Emotional Dysregulation?’ :

Other terms for ’emotional dysregulation’ include ’emotional instability’, ‘affective volatility’ and high ’emotional lability.’ In other words, an individual who is emotionally deregulated is prone to experiencing extreme and rapid fluctuations in his/her moods and feelings.


Recent Research Into Emotional Dysregulation In BPD Sufferers :

Recent research into BPD suggests that, in the case of individuals afflicted by this disorder,  not all emotions are involved in these dramatic fluctuations of mood. The main emotions that ARE involved have been found to be :

To elaborate a little further, anger appears to be the emotion most strongly associated with BPD and severe swings between feelings of depression and anxiety have been found to be particularly prevalent in those suffering from the condition.

Devastating Effects On Life :

Anyone who suffers from, or has suffered from, significant emotional deregulation knows the devastating effects the condition can have on various aspects of one’s life : it can ruin friendships, family relationships and intimate relationships ; it can also cause problems at work, including job loss ; it may even lead to legal difficulties (and these examples by no means constitute an exhaustive list).

If, then, we suffer from emotional dysregulation, it is vital, if we wish to reclaim, and establish some semblance of control over, our lives, that we reduce our level of emotional deregulation and, thus, become more emotionally stable.

How Can We Reduce Our Level Of Emotional Dysregulation And Regain Some Control Over How We Feel And Behave?

A study carried out by Bailey and Chambers (2016) found that by undergoing an eight week course in mindfulness meditation, it was possible for an individual to increase the volume of the dentate gyrus, an area of the hippocampus (the hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation) by 22.8% – this is possible because of a quality of the brain known as neuroplasticity.

And other research has found that mindfulness meditation can also have beneficial effects upon other brain regions and their associated functions. For example, a review of research, carried out by the researchers Tang, Holzel and Posner (2015) and published in a journal called Nature Reviews Neuroscience focused upon 21 studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain. Findings of the studies include :

Mindfulness meditation can increase the size of the following brain regions :

  • anterior cingulate cortex and striatum (involved in attention control)
  • multiple prefrontal regions and limbic region (involved in emotional regulation)
  • insula, medial prefrontal cortex (involved in self-awareness)

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

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borderline personality disorder

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

Five Types Of Dysregulation Linked To Childhood Trauma.

I have written extensively on this site about the link between the experience of significant childhood trauma and the possible later development of borderline personality disorder (BPD).

One of the leading experts on borderline personality disorder is Martha Linehan (who developed the treatment for BPD known as dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT) and, according to her widely accepted theory, those who have developed BPD as a result of their adverse childhood experiences are often affected by all, or combinations of some, of the following types of DYSREGULATION:

(If we are dysregulated in relation to a quality, it means, in this context, that we have difficulty controlling and managing whatever the specific quality may be.)


Above: DBT has been shown to be an effective therapy for helping people who suffer from BPD and problems connected to various types of dysregulation (see five types below).

The Five Types Of Dysregulation We May Experience If We Have Developed BPD As A Result Of Our Childhood Trauma :

1) Emotional dysregulation:

We may have very volatile emotions that are so powerful we can feel controlled and overtaken by them. We may experience particularly intense and fluctuating emotions in response to our relationships with others, particularly our closest relationships.

Also, we may have difficulty identifying what exactly we are feeling (ie. find it hard to name some emotions we experience) and have problems expressing and experiencing some emotions.

2) Interpersonal dysregulation:

This means we might experience significant difficulties both forming and maintaining relationships with others. We may, too, constantly fear rejection and abandonment, leading to us becoming ‘needy’ and ‘clingy’ which, most sadly, can often cause the very rejection we are trying so ardently to prevent.

We may, too, find our feelings for others often vacillate dramatically from idealisation one minute, to demonization the next, possibly apropos (objectively speaking) very little.

3) Cognitive dysregulation:

This type of dysregulation may lead us to experience dissociation, depersonalisation and paranoia.

 4) Behavioral dysregulation:

Our behaviour may become extremely self – destructive : we may self-harm, attempt suicide, have promiscuous and unsafe sex, take unnecessary risks (such as reckless driving), become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol in a desperate attempt to numb and temporarily escape from overwhelming mental anguish, or develop eating disorders.

5) Self – dysregulation:

We may feel confused as to who we are and have a very poor sense of identity. We may feel different aspects of our personality are not well integrated so we can find ourselves acting in rather one-dimensional ways.

Our self-image can be unstable as can our values. We may be confused as to who we really are and what are beliefs and principals are ( indeed, these may frequently alter).

This can leave us feeling lonely and empty.

To read my article on the therapy devised by Marsha Linehan called dialectical behavioural therapy, click here.


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

3 Types Of Emotional Control Difficulties Resulting From Childhood Trauma

We know that those who suffer significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from emotional dysregulation (i.e. problems controlling their emotions) 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

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 behavior/ self-harming behavior 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 is 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).

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Intense Emotions.

borderline personality disorder and intense vemotions

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.

BPD and emotional dysregulation

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


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.


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).