Borderline Personality Disorder and Early Trauma

This September (23-25), The Master Series places the spotlight on Trauma. Bringing together scholars and practitioners who have pushed the envelope and broken ground in their chosen field of medicine. The Master Series showcases this blue-sky thinking to highlight ground-breaking concepts which change the way we think about the experiences each of us has in the world we share.

 We have assembled three of the world’s greatest authorities on trauma – Doctors Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Stephen Porges, who will share their collective lifetime of work in the field of trauma treatment. Although their work has taken them in different directions, each believes that the key to healing trauma is by unlocking the physical manifestation which has been held onto by the body over the course of many years. The consequences of this impacts the lives of many who are held in a permanent state of fight-or-flight, having harrowing effects on both mind and body. The results of their work has changed the lives of many trauma sufferers, previously resigned to a life of misery. Here we highlight some of the cutting edge work of Dr Bessel van der Kolk.

Dr van der Kolk believes that our experience of trauma leaves an imprint on our bodies, keeping trauma survivors linked to the injustices of the past and preventing them from reclaiming full ownership of their bodies and consequently leading fulfilling lives. With a research career spanning thirty-plus years, a key theme of Dr van der Kolk’s work is that “exposure to abuse and violence fosters the development of a hyperactive alarm system and molds a body that gets stuck in fight, flight, and freeze.” This prevents the subject from retaining emotional control or presents as a persistent ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, as is seen in those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  His 2018 study on Trauma and the Development of Borderline Personality Disorder found that “when this occurs, people can mobilize a range of behaviors that are best understood as attempts at self-soothing”. In the case of BPD, also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), this can exhibit in – among other signs – a long-term history of unstable relationships (and promiscuity), a distorted sense of self and strong emotional reactions, all of which make it extremely difficult for both the subject and for those close to them, who find it difficult to navigate the frequent and often violent ups and downs experienced by the sufferer.  

In an earlier study on Childhood Trauma in BPD sufferers, the findings overwhelmingly demonstrated that 81% of borderline subjects related histories of major childhood trauma including physical abuse (71%), sexual abuse (68%) or witnessing serious domestic violence (62%). For those with only traits of BPD, abuse histories were less common and least common altogether in those with no diagnosis of BPD, which makes the link between a history of traumatic abuse in childhood and a diagnosis of BPD pretty undeniable.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, along with environmental, cultural and social factors, some of the other causes of BPD are; family history i.e. genetics and other brain factors like “structural and functional changes in the brain, especially in the areas that control impulses and emotional regulation.” No matter the reason, the devastating influence on what is considered to be healthy functioning is the same when the sufferer’s body becomes entrapped by the traumatic experiences the person has experienced.

Borderline Personality Disorder ushers in an agonizing cycle of behavior that feels tough to escape. Indeed, in the past, many in the mental health profession felt that the condition was largely untreatable but because of the work of researchers and professionals like Dr van der Kolk, the prognosis for successful treatment is now much greater. The sensitivities of BPD sufferers that precipitate their erratic behavior are largely due to these differences in the brain, predominantly keeping the BPD brain in a state of high alert, due to the trauma experienced in childhood holding them in a perpetual fight-or-flight state. Dr van der Kolk’s work looking into how practices such as Yoga and Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) can help to calm and create new and more positive neural pathways, which become more effective the more the technique is practiced, has been life-changing for many.  

The function of our brains is to take care of us and to be in sync with the body’s systems. Trauma changes the way the brain processes information and the body engages with the world. Trauma makes people afraid to know what they know and feel what they feel. Traumatized people experience heartbreak and a state of being out of sync with their environment. They continue to be trapped by their history and react to current experience in a myriad of ways as a replay of the past. Dr van der Kolk’s ground-breaking work shows ways to break the cycles of re-enactment and suffering.

Synthesizing history, psychiatry, neurology, and trauma research, Bessel van der Kolk expands on and deepens our understanding of trauma and how children and adults adapt to traumatic stress. Dr. van der Kolk underscores the importance of safety and connection and shows that when those needs go unmet and children are chronically exposed to victimization and abuse, they often meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for PTSD and other psychiatric conditions such as BPD, as we have seen. Because of this, Dr. van der Kolk argues for a developmentally appropriate trauma diagnosis and treatment for children and adults who experienced childhood abuse. In the case of deeply-held trauma, talking just isn’t enough.

In Dr van der Kolk’s workshop on Developmental Trauma on September 23 he will:

  • Explain what trauma is and how it impacts differently at different stages of development
  • Explain how the attachment system affects the processing of traumatic experiences
  • Describe how children process trauma and how the attachment bond cultivates resilience
  • Identify the basics of the brain circuitry involved in self-experience, salience, and executive functioning, and how these are affected by trauma

If the Body Feels Safe, the Mind Feels Safe

We look forward to seeing you at the conference. Take advantage of our early bird discount now.

Sign up to our mailing list

To stay up to date on our latest posts, learning packs and educational resources.

Our Sponsors

Scroll to Top