Trust is key in treating borderline personality disorder


Difficulties associated with treating borderline personality disorder (BPD) make for an uneasy alliance between patient and clinician. Deep-seated anxiety and trust issues often lead to patients skipping visits or raging at those who treat them, leaving clinicians frustrated and ready to give up or relying on a pill to make the patient better.

Dr. John M. Oldham

Dr. John M. Oldham

John M. Oldham, MD, MS, recalls one patient he almost lost, a woman who was struggling with aggressive behavior. Initially cooperative and punctual, the patient gradually became distrustful, grilling Dr. Oldham on his training and credentials. “As the questions continued, she slipped from being very cooperative to being enraged and attacking me,” said Dr. Oldham, Distinguished Emeritus Professor in the Menninger department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College in Houston.

Dr. Oldham eventually drew her back in by earning her trust. “There’s no magic to this,” he acknowledged. “You try to be as alert and informed and vigilant for anything you say that produces a negative or concerning reaction in the patient.”

This interactive approach to BPD treatment has been gaining traction in a profession that often looks to medications to alleviate specific symptoms. It’s so effective that it sometimes even surprises the patient, Dr. Oldham noted. “When you approach them like this, they can begin to settle down,” which was the case with the female patient he once treated.

About 1.4% of the U.S. population has BPD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Conceptualized by the late John G. Gunderson, MD, BPD initially was seen as floating on the borderline between psychosis and neurosis. Clinicians now understand that this isn’t the case. The patients need, as Dr. Gunderson once pointed out, constant vigilance because of attachment issues and childhood trauma.

A stable therapeutic alliance between patient and physician, sometimes in combination with evidence-based therapies, is a formula for success, some experts say.

A misunderstood condition

Although there is some degree of heritable risk, BPD patients are often the product of an invalidating environment in childhood. “As kids, we’re guided and nurtured by caring adults to provide models of reasonable, trustworthy behavior. If those role models are missing or just so inconsistent and unpredictable, the patient doesn’t end up with a sturdy self-image. Instead, they’re adrift, trying to figure out who will be helpful and be a meaningful, trustworthy companion and adviser,” Dr. Oldham said.

Emotional or affective instability and impulsivity, sometimes impulsive aggression, often characterize their condition. “Brain-imaging studies have revealed that certain nerve pathways that are necessary to regulate emotions are impoverished in patients with BPD,” Dr. Oldham said.

An analogy is a car going too fast, with a runaway engine that’s running too hot – and the brakes don’t work, he added.

“People think these patients are trying to create big drama, that they’re putting on a big show. That’s not accurate,” he continued. These patients don’t have the ability to stop the trigger that leads to their emotional storms. They also don’t have the ability to regulate themselves. “We may say, it’s a beautiful day outside, but I still have to go to work. Someone with BPD may say: It’s a beautiful day; I’m going to the beach,” Dr. Oldham explained.

A person with BPD might sound coherent when arguing with someone else. But their words are driven by the storm they can’t turn off.

This can lead to their own efforts to turn off the intensity. They might become self-injurious or push other people away. It’s one of the ironies of this condition because BPD patients desperately want to trust others but are scared to do so. “They look for any little signal – that someone else will hurt, disappoint, or leave them. Eventually their relationships unravel,” Dr. Oldham saod.

For some, suicide is sometimes a final solution.

Dr. Michael A. Cummings

Dr. Michael A. Cummings

Those traits make it difficult for a therapist to connect with a patient. “This is a very difficult group of people to treat and to establish treatment,” said Michael A. Cummings, MD, of the department of psychiatry at University of California, Riverside, and a psychopharmacology consultant with the California Department of State Hospitals’ Psychopharmacology Resource Network.

BPD patients tend to idealize people who are attempting to help them. When they become frustrated or disappointed in some way, “they then devalue the caregiver or the treatment and not infrequently, fall out of treatment,” Dr. Cummings said. It can be a very taxing experience, particularly for younger, less experienced therapists.


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