What Triggers a Person With Borderline Personality Disorder?

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health disorder that is characterized by ongoing patterns of changing moods, behaviors, and self-image. When a person has BPD, they often experience periods of intense feelings of anger, anxiety, or depression that can last for a few hours or a few days. The mood swings experienced by people with BPD can lead to issues with impulsive behavior and can contribute to relationship problems.

People with BPD have various triggers that can set their symptoms in motion. Common triggers include rejection or abandonment in relationships or the resurfacing of a memory of a traumatic childhood event.

Tips for Supporting Someonw With Borderline Personality Disorder - Illustration by Theresa Chiechi

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Read on to find out more about the triggers that people with BPD must cope with.

A List of BPD Triggers 

A trigger is an event or situation that brings on symptoms. They can be internal, like a thought or a memory, or external, like an argument in a relationship or losing a job. Triggers that can lead to intense symptoms in a person with BPD include the following:

Relationships

Relationships are one of the most common triggers for people with BPD. People with the disorder tend to experience a higher than usual sensitivity to being abandoned by their loved ones. This leads to feelings of intense fear and anger.

In some cases, a person with BPD may self-harm, act impulsively, or attempt suicide if the relationship they are in makes them feel rejected, criticized, or as though they may be abandoned.

For example, people with BPD may jump to negative conclusions if they reach out to a friend and don’t hear back in a short span of time. When that happens, their thoughts spin out of control and they arrive at the conclusion that they have no friends and because of that, begin to experience intense emotions that may lead to self-harm.

Relationship Triggers and BPD

Romantic relationships are not the only ones that can trigger a person with BPD to experience an episode. Their relationships with friends, family, and colleagues can also spark symptoms if they experience any sort of rejection, criticism, or threat of abandonment.

Trauma 

Childhood trauma can play a role in both the development of BPD as well as future triggers. Research has found that people with BPD have high rates of childhood abuse, such as emotional and physical neglect and sexual abuse.

When a person with BPD is reminded of a traumatic event, either in their own mind or through physical reminders such as seeing a certain person or place, their symptoms can become exacerbated (worsened) and their emotions intensified. 

Criticism 

Having BPD may cause a person to be extremely sensitive to any type of criticism. When someone with BPD is criticized, they don’t see it as an isolated incident but rather an attack on their character that paints an entire picture of rejection. When a person with BPD feels rejected, their symptoms can intensify and so can impulsive or self-harming behaviors.

Job Loss

Losing a job is a common trigger for people with BPD because it tends to bring up feelings of rejection and criticism. Since rejection and criticism are so largely triggering, any type of situation that makes them feel that way can worsen or bring on intense symptoms. 

During a BPD Episode 

Each person with the disorder is unique and experiences their symptoms in different ways. Some common signs symptoms are worsening in a person with BPD are:

  • Intense outbursts of unwarranted anger
  • Bouts of high depression or anxiety
  • Suicidal or self-harming behaviors
  • Impulsive acts they wouldn’t engage in when not in a dysregulated state, such as excessive spending or binge eating
  • Unstable self-image
  • Dissociation, which is disconnecting from one’s own thoughts and feelings or memories and identity

BPD and Substance Abuse

When a person with BPD is having a flare-up of symptoms, they may engage in reckless or impulsive behaviors like substance use. Some research has shown that close to 80% of people with BPD develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lifetimes. People with both BPD and substance use disorder are more impulsive and engage in suicidal behavior more often than those who only have BPD.

Coping Through BPD Triggers 

Coping with BPD triggers can be difficult. The first step in being able to do so is by identifying what triggers you.

Because you may be triggered by something that another person with BPD is not triggered by, it can be hard to determine your personal triggers until you investigate which feelings, thoughts, events, and situations set off your symptoms.

Once you have done that, you can avoid your triggers and practice other coping skills such as:

Therapy 

There are several specialized evidence-based therapies found to be effective for helping people with BPD manage their disorder. They include:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy: Dialectical behavior therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion-regulation strategies to change negative thinking patterns and make positive behavioral changes.
  • Mentalization-based treatment: Mentalization-based therapy works by helping a person with BPD develop an increased capacity to imagine the thoughts and feelings in their own mind, and in the minds of others, to improve interpersonal interactions.
  • Schema-focused therapy: This form of therapy helps to identify unhelpful patterns that a person may have developed as a child in an effort to replace them with healthier ones.
  • Transference-focused psychotherapy: For people with BPD, this type of therapy is centered around building and exploring aspects of a relationship with a therapist to change how relationships are experienced.
  • Systems training for emotional predictability and problem solving (STEPPS): STEPPS is a psycho-educational, group-based treatment that teaches people with BPD more about their disorder and the skills needed to manage their feelings and change unhealthy behaviors.

Self-Care 

There are several self-care techniques that you can adopt to help you cope and manage your disorder. They include:

  • Learning mindfulness techniques through meditation apps
  • Learning how to ground yourself in difficult moments so that you can bring your focus to the present time
  • Seeking out emotional and practical support such as therapy groups and friends and family
  • Acknowledging unhealthy behaviors and avoiding them by pressing pause on your feelings before you act or react
  • Staying active to keep your mind distracted when you have high levels of anger or irritability

Pressing Pause on Negative Emotions

While it can be difficult to just force yourself to stop feeling a certain way, you can practice patience and pause to collect yourself when you do feel an overwhelming rush of negative emotions. By taking a step back from the situation and taking a few deep breaths, you may be able to calm your mind and, thus, lessen the negative emotions that are trying to take over.

How to Help Someone Else  

When someone you care about has BPD, it can be hard to know how to help them. That being said, there are things that you can do to support them with the ups and downs of their condition. They include:

  • Educating yourself about the disorder and all that it entails: People with BPD often engage in mean-spirited behaviors, but that is their illness taking over. It’s important to learn about the disorder so that you can better understand what is motivating their behavior.
  • Support them when they reach out for help: While you can’t force someone to seek professional help, you can be patient with them and support them when they finally do. To support their decision, you can voice how proud you are of them or offer to accompany them to their appointments. People with BPD that have strong support systems see a greater improvement in their symptoms than those without any support.
  • Listen and validate: You don’t have to agree with how a person with BPD sees a situation to listen attentively and validate that they are not wrong to feel what they’re feeling. Just knowing that they have validation can provide relief to someone with BPD during an episode.
  • Never ignore self-harming behaviors or threats: Many people with BPD may threaten to harm themselves several times without acting on it. This can lead to their loved ones seeing their suicidal ideations less seriously. However, as many as 75% of people with BPD attempt suicide at some point in their life so even threats need to be taken seriously.

What to Do If Your Loved One With BPD Threatens Suicide

If your loved one threatens suicide, call 911 immediately. It can also be helpful to recognize signs that your loved one is thinking about self-harming behaviors because they may not always voice them aloud. Suicidal actions or threats always warrant professional evaluation even if you may believe that there’s no real risk. 

Summary

People who cope with BPD often go through times of normalcy that are broken up by episodes. Everyone has unique triggers because each person is different, but one common theme among many people with BPD is the fear of rejection or abandonment.

To cope with the illness, it’s important to recognize triggers so that you can avoid them when possible. When symptoms do arise, seeking help or practicing self-care techniques may help you manage the symptoms and avoid overindulging in unhealthy behaviors.

A Word From Verywell 

Living with BPD is not easy. That being said, there are several effective treatment strategies that can help you cope with the disorder so that your symptoms aren't as damaging.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to seek out support from a professional so that treatment can begin. Although treatment isn’t linear, when you do begin addressing your disorder, you become closer to living a happy and healthy life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is anger a normal part of a BPD episode?

    Anger is one of the main emotions experienced in response to triggering events. These feelings of anger are intense in nature and can be hard to overcome.

  • Can people with BPD cope without medication?

    Although people with BPD are often prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood-stabilizing anticonvulsant medications, there is no medication formally approved for the treatment of BPD. Research has found that the most effective treatment is different therapies designed to help people with BPD recognize their emotions and react differently to negative thoughts and feelings.

  • How does family history contribute to BPD triggers?

    Many people with BPD have a family history of childhood abuse or neglect. When memories of the events resurface, it can be quite triggering. Research has found that a family history of childhood abuse may also contribute to the development of BPD.

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