Borderline Personality Disorder and Anxiety


(This is the second in the series on exploring mood and anxiety dysfunctional traits for  Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) on the DSM 5, and symptom six on the DSM IV . In the last issue, we looked at episodal dysphoria; today, we will take a look at generalized anxiety.)

In a study involving ninety-two hospitalized patients diagnosed with BPD[1]Grambalet et al. concluded that BPD patients were significantly more likely than the people in the control groups to suffer from a wide range of anxiety disorders including: panic disorder, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, mixed anxiety/depression disorder, adjustment disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, one in five patients had two or more of these disorders. Excessive levels of anxiety correlated with reduced quality of life in mental, social, and work domains.

Each of these anxiety disorders deserves to be examined in isolation, keeping in mind that we may have two or more disorders functioning at any given time. Today we want to take a look at generalized anxiety disorder.

Ninety percent  of people with BDP have clinically high rates of anxiety[2] . Generalized anxiety makes it difficult for us to maintain our ability to function in our home and work environments, thus increasing the risk of suicide and self-injury. I remember a friend of mine explaining why she had taken the whole bottle of clonazepam, an antipsychotic medication, thus ending up once again in the psych ward at the University Hospital. She said she did it because she could no longer stand the constant feeling of anxiety. As in the case of my friend, I have noticed that many suicide attempts are due to extended anxiety attacks rather than the more commonly held belief that they are due to depression. 

I am sure that this story of anxiety resonates with most of us with BPD; we all know that we  have constant anxiety issues in trying to survive and thrive in our own corners of the world. Like most of us with BPD, I have had to learn to live with a constant form of generalized anxiety. Some days are worse than others, depending on the stress levels. Sometimes during the day, usually after teaching my classes in psychology, I will stop for a moment and realize just how tense my body is. I have learned to read the signs and diffuse my anxiety episodes, usually by engaging in deep breathing exercises. At other times, the anxiety will create the sensation of having an elephant on my chest. This anxiety is physical as well as mental. Once this level of anxiety occurs, my brain and body will slip into the sympathetic system thus increasing the sugar levels for the energy needed to flee or fight,  salt levels to raise my blood pressure to get the sugar to my muscles, and driving the administrator section of my brain to concentrate on the unknown threat rather than being able to rationally go about the business of living.     At these times, I have to take a walk while concentrating on breathing,  consciously engaging and forcing my mind to take control again, easing my brain into the parasympathetic system, and thus allowing my body and brain to burn off the excess energy.

Living with BPD means living with anxiety. We cannot eliminate it, but we can control it. We can take control of our minds and bodies, eliminate the anxiety, and then deal with the cause of the stress. If the stress is a normal part of our daily lives, we simply monitor and proceed. If the anxiety becomes uncomfortable, we take a break and reduce the anxiety levels and then get back to work. If we are going through a period of prolonged stress, we need to build in breaks and maintenance days off.  If the anxiety leads to crisis, we engage in crisis management. We get help. We take whatever medication is necessary until the crisis has past. For some of us, we will need to stay on medication for the rest of our lives. In other words, we learn to read the anxiety levels in our brain and body and then take the necessary steps to reduce the anxiety so we can function normally at home, and at work.

My five suggestion for dealing with BPD:

  1. We learn to read and monitor our anxiety levels.
  2. We develop a strategy like deep breathing. I use a four point square visualization technique:
    1. Four breaths in deeper and deeper until full
    1. Hold for four seconds.
    1. Four breaths out until completely empty
    1. Hold for four seconds
    1. Repeat until experiencing a release of anxiety.
  3. When stress leads to conflict (internal or external) and an anxiety attack, we:
    1. Remove ourselves from the situation,
    1. Take a walk and work off the physical side effects of the anxiety.
    1. Return to the situation and work on it until there we feel it has been resolved. This will usually be experienced in a washed out feeling accompanied by peace and joy.
  4. If we have a period of prolonged stress, we will need to remove our self from the situation and take a maintenance break.
  5. If we are experiencing extreme anxiety over a significant length of time, measured in months or years, we may have to make major life changes.

[1] Grambal, A;  Prasko, J; Kamaradove, D; Latalova, K;Holubova, M;Sedlackova,Z.; and Hruby, R..    Quality of life in borderline patients comorbid with anxiety spectrum disorders – a cross-sectional study. Dovepress. 2016.

[2] Harned, Melanie s.; Valenstein, Helen R..  Treatment of borderline personality disorder and co-occurring anxiety disorders. F1000Prime Rep. v.5; 2013.

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