Conference Coverage

Reframe view of borderline personality disorder patients as survivors



– A view of borderline personality disorder as neurobiological in nature can help clinicians extend their patience and empathy to these notoriously difficult-to-treat patients, according to an expert.

“Unfortunately, there are those who ... are just too frustrated by” [patients with borderline personality disorder], said Carmen V. Pinto, MD, an Elizabethtown, Ky.–based psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients with the disorder.

The diagnosis occurs in up to 2% of the population and is twice as common in women. About three-quarters of borderline personality disorder patients will attempt suicide at least once, and up to 1 in 10 complete suicide, said Dr. Pinto, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville (Ky.).

“There is an art to dealing with patients who are impulsive, and sometimes dangerous and scary,” Dr. Pinto said at Summit in Neurology & Psychiatry, held by Global Academy for Medical Education.

He emphasized the effect of unstable interpersonal relationships combined with frontolimbic brain abnormalities on the lives of patients with borderline personality disorder. In some cases, borderline personality disorder patients experienced traumatic events such as sexual abuse that was personal and ongoing – and occurred while the personality was being formed.

“These are normal people who have been exposed to abnormal stress,” Dr. Pinto said. “So you have to be careful, and see them not as victims but as survivors still suffering.”

Citing several lines of study into the neurobiochemical mechanisms of action in the disorder, Dr. Pinto discussed the role of disruption to the brain’s cortical-limbic circuit that serves as the brain’s basic stress response. In this population, an overactive amygdala and hypofunctioning frontal cortex continually signal threats even when none exist – exciting the sympathetic nervous system – as well as the endocrine and immune systems.

“The circuit gets overwhelmed, either because there really is too much to deal with, or there was poor functioning to start with, so the brain is going off like a pinball machine,” Dr. Pinto said. “If [the patients perceive] even the slightest offense, their limbic system lights up, and they have trouble turning it off, which is why it can be so difficult to deal with these folks in therapy.”

He explained the borderline personality patient’s typical negative valence as the result of this hyper-threat detection, often rooted in experiences in which people who professed to care for them acted contrary to their words, as in cases of incest. “They learn they can’t trust what is said, so they rely on nonverbal cues,” Dr. Pinto said. “They aren’t listening to what is said to them.”

Dr. Pinto cited a study of how this patient population had trouble distinguishing neutral faces from faces expressing anger or boredom, resulting in their believing that most people they encounter are unhappy with them in some way, causing them to retreat or have stressful relationships with others.

“Therapeutic neutrality is not the best way to approach this person, because they read it as ‘you are mad at me’ or ‘you’re bored with me’ or ‘you don’t like me,’ ” Dr. Pinto said, noting that he likes to reassure patients that they are doing the best they can with what they have. However, he warned against how often, in these patients’ quest to feel loved and accepted, they might ask for hugs or other contact. Rather than panic, use the opportunity to help the patient practice having healthy boundaries by explaining that not hugging them is designed to protect them, Dr. Pinto said.

Among the DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing this disorder is that the patient has an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” Because there are no imaging or laboratory tests to confirm a deviant inner experience, the clinician must turn to the patient for assessment while quelling the impulse to assign meanings to action and insight.

“You really have to be quiet and listen. They are the expert with their inner experience, and you have to let them tell you what that is,” he said, noting that the distortion of how they view themselves in relation to others is painful and pervasive, crossing all areas of their lives.

Because relationships are so difficult for these patients to develop, Dr. Pinto urged keeping in mind that it is possible they have no other therapeutic relationship in their lives. “That is a scary responsibility, to think they have no one else to talk to but you,” he said. This underscores the need for clinicians to protect themselves, too. “If I don’t feel safe, I can’t do a good job for them – and I tell them that,” Dr. Pinto said.

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same company. Dr. Pinto had no relevant disclosures, although he said he is a paid speaker for Otsuka, Lundbeck, Janssen, and other pharmaceutical companies.

On Twitter @whitneymcknight

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