We have come to the last, (and perhaps most difficult to describe and comprehend) symptom on the DSM IV, namely: “transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms”. The DSM 5 includes it under significant impairments in personal function with a similar descriptor of: “Dissociative states under stress”. When we see this definition we immediately think of two severe disorders, paranoid schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder; however Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), although having some similarities, is essentially quite different.
First the semantics. Transient merely means that the symptom is not continuous but comes and goes depending on the levels of stress and subsequent anxiety. The term ideation refers to negative mind states or thinking patterns involving negative past experiences that, again, may come to the surface under stress. Paranoia here is much gentler than the kind of paranoia that we see in Paranoid Schizophrenia. By my own experience, I would describe it as a feeling that I do not belong, and the world out there is a dangerous place that required that I was always perfect, vigilant, and careful in my interactions with people. This leaves us with the term dissociative that we will examine more closely in the rest of this blog.
One study, although quite different in design, seems to bring what is happening into focus. Ludascher et al (2007) applied electric stimulation on the right index finger with twelve female patients with BPD and twelve healthy controls. They found significantly elevated pain thresholds in patients with BPD, with a significant positive correlation between pain thresholds and dissociation, as well as between pain thresholds and aversive arousal. In a follow-up study, Ludascher et al (2010) using script-driven imagery, produced dissociative states in participants with BPD. These states on fMRI’s were characterized by decreased pain sensitivity and significantly increased activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (part of the OFC) which is at least partially responsible for empathy, processing pleasant and unpleasant emotions, self-criticisms, and attention to negative emotions. From these two studies we see suppression of emotional pain and interference in the functioning of some of the sections of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
Typically when an emotional situation takes place (usually involving intimate relationships or high self-worth activities like work and some sports), the OFC and amygdala are activated, thus empowering us to take action and resolve the situation. Once it is resolved, these impulses are then channeled through the pleasure center of the brain producing a sense of joy and accomplishment. Serotonin and endorphin neural circuits are then activated giving us a sense of peace and euphoria. However, if the emotional situation is too intense (such as a break-up), we will eventually but a block in place along those neural circuits connected to the images and thoughts and feelings. This is a natural body function that is usually put in place to block the neurotransmitters that are coming from intense pain. The neurons simply withdraw their receptor docks, thereby preventing the messages from proceeding from the painful neural pathways to the OFC of the brain. Out of sight, out of mind. Works for most people.
But if this process has been corrupted by severe emotional problems during childhood such as emotional neglect, coupled with a supersensitive genetic predisposition, the OFC will not be able to process any additional emotional insult. The whole emotion processing system gets shut down. This theory is supported by Jones et al (1999). They assessed twenty-three patients with BPD, and 23 matched controls, with the Autobiographical Memory Test (AMT) and self-report measures. As expected, participants with BPD scored significantly higher than the control group on measures of depression, anxiety, and trait anger. However, they also scored higher in dissociative experiences that appear to be connected to general memories on the AMT. They concluded that patients with BPD had difficulty in recalling specific autobiographical memories, perhaps related to their tendency to dissociate, which may help them to avoid reliving memories that may have been emotionally painful.
These studies suggests that under stress, we lost souls with BPD tend to shut down emotional pain sensations because of our past painful experiences. Again, in my own case, whenever I was personally or professionally challenged by someone, and I felt my self-worth was at stake, I could actually feel a sense of numbness flowing through my brain and through the rest of my body. Quite simply, this suggests that some of us with BPD may have developed some kind of defense mechanism to interrupt the flow of pain within our brain. Because this pain is emotional in nature, it might indicate that we bypass our amygdala thus having an interrupted or numbing response when faced with an emotional situation.
Now this sounds like a perfectly good way to deal with overwhelming emotional situations, but there is a major drawback, which brings me to the last study in this section. Ebner-Priemer et al (2009) used an aversive differential delay conditioning procedure with 33 unmediated patients with BPD and 35 healthy controls. They discovered patients that BPD with high state dissociative experiences and showed impairment in responding to emotional learning. They concluded that emotional, amygdala-based learning processes, may be inhibited in acquisition and extinction processes in therapy and should be closely monitored in exposure-based psychotherapy. It would appear that we do not respond well to traditional therapy methods. The amygdala, and parts of the OFC mentioned in these studies, are designed to provide the plan and the power to solve problems, including highly emotional ones. It is part of a circuit that leads to resolutions, a trip through the pleasure center of the brain, and to a nice comforting flow of serotonin. When we shut down these mechanisms, we shut down our ability to solve problems and to feel the joy and contentment of growing through our experiences. And, unfortunately, we do not respond well to therapy.
So what is the answer? Again, I can only refer to my personal experience. I underwent an extensive therapy including group, cognitive, and an assortment of other strategies, with only limited success. My true healing took place when I begin to see myself as a higher self in conflict with a mind self (talk about dissociative disorder). Only then, with the support of my higher self, was I able to explore my past emotions, cry with some, yell and scream at others, and feel the hurt and loss with the rest. It allowed me to accept them, be thankful for their part in making me strong, and put them behind me. Then when old feeling returned, and I felt the numbing sensation coming on, I would connect to my higher self, and allow it to flood my mind and soul, cry, and move on.
Here are my five suggestions for those of us with a dissociative element in our BPD:
- We face our emotions. We notice that numbing sensations when we begin to shut down. We seek a quiet moment and allow the feelings to surface.
- We call upon our higher self to give us courage and strength to face them, deal with them, cry if we have to, or be angry with the people involved. We then allow the higher self to complete the circuit as the serotonin pathways are activated and endorphins are released.
- We continue to process these past emotions through contemplative therapy. In my case, I entered a state of meditation where I become aware of my higher self. I then allowed my mind to bring up past pains and deal with them. I did this on consecutive days until all the old wounds were healed. It took me several weeks before I felt the issues had been resolved.
- Whenever they resurface, I thank my mind for bringing it to my attention. If the time and space are appropriate, I give it permission to experience the old emotions. I soothe it with my higher self. “There, there it’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to cry. it’s okay to be angry.”
- If the timing is not appropriate or if an emotional reaction might lead to further conflict and pain, I allow my mind to suppress the emotion with the promise to resolve the issue and the emotions behind it during the next day’s meditation. Once I feel comfortable with, and in control of my emotions, I will bring it up at the next opportunity with my intimate friends and family. If it just an acquaintance from work or community, I may just let it pass and chalk it up to experience.
Ludascher, Petra; Valerius, Gabriele, Stiglmayr, Christian; Mauchnik, Jana; Lanius, Ruth A; Bohus, Martin; and Schmahl, Christian. Pain sensitivity and neural processing during dissociative states in patients with borderline personality disorder with and without comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder: a pilot study. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2010.
Ludascher, Petra; Valerius, Gabriele, Stiglmayr, Christian; Mauchnik, Jana; Lanius, Ruth A; Bohus, Martin; and Schmahl, Christian. Elevated pain in thresholds correlate with dissociation and aversive arousal in patients with borderline personality disorder. 2007.
Jones, B; Heard, H; Startup,M; and Swales, M. Autobiographical memory and dissociation in borderline personality disorder. Psychol Med. 1999. Psychiatry Research. 2007.
Ulrich W. Ebner-Priemer, PhD, Jana Mauchnik, PhD, Nikolaus Kleindienst, PhD, Christian Schmahl, MD, Martin Peper, PhD, MD, M. Zachary Rosenthal, PhD, Herta Flor, PhD, and Martin Bohus, MD. Emotional learning during dissociative states in borderline personality disorder. Journal of Pschiatry and Neuroscience. 2009.