Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder Triggers

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Most people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have triggers, that is, particular events or situations that exacerbate or intensify their symptoms. BPD triggers can vary from person to person, but there are some types of triggers that are very common in BPD.

Defining a Trigger

You may have heard the term "trigger" before but are not sure exactly what this means. Usually, a trigger refers to some event that brings on a major exacerbation of BPD symptoms. This event can be external, as in something that happens outside of yourself, or internal, meaning something that happens in your mind, like a thought or memory. Immediately following a trigger, one or more of your BPD symptoms may intensify significantly. Triggers are events that make you feel as if your symptoms are going off the charts.

Relationship Triggers

The most common BPD triggers are relationship triggers or interpersonal distress. Many people with BPD experience intense fear and anger, impulsive behavior, self-harm, and even suicidality in the wake of relationship events that make them feel either rejected, criticized, or abandoned. This is a phenomenon called abandonment or rejection sensitivity.

For example, you may feel triggered when you leave a message for a friend and do not receive a call back. Perhaps after placing the call, you wait a few hours, and then start having thoughts like, "She's not calling back, she must be mad at me." These thoughts may spiral from there into things like, "She probably hates me," or "I'll never have a friend who sticks by my side." With these spiraling thoughts come spiraling symptoms, such as intense emotions, anger, and urges to self-harm.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Cognitive Triggers

Sometimes you may be triggered by internal events, such as thoughts that can seemingly come out of the blue. This is particularly true for people who have BPD related to traumatic events like child abuse.

For example, a memory or image of a past experience, like a traumatic event or a loss, can trigger intense emotions and other BPD symptoms. The memory does not necessarily need to be a distressing one to trigger symptoms. Some people are triggered by memories of good times from the past, which can sometimes be a reminder that things are not as good now.

How to Manage BPD Triggers

Triggers are highly individual, so the first step in managing triggers is to know the particular events, situations, thoughts, or memories that trigger your outbursts of anger or impulsiveness. To determine what your triggers are, try this exercise. It can help you identify and deal with your worst triggers.

Once you've learned your most troubling triggers, you have a couple of options. First, you can figure out whether a particular trigger can be avoided. For example, if you know that watching a certain movie always triggers you, you can choose to not watch that movie. Many triggers, however, can't be avoided so easily. If you find that some of your triggers cannot be avoided, you can make a plan for coping that includes developing an action plan, seeing a therapist, and learning to gradually approach your triggers. A therapist can help you learn to express your emotions in a way that doesn't push the people you love away, which leaves you feeling abandoned or rejected, and thus triggered.

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  1. Staebler K, Helbing E, Rosenbach C, Renneberg B. Rejection sensitivity and borderline personality disorder. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2011;18(4):275-283. doi:10.1002/cpp.705

  2. Bungert M, Liebke L, Thome J, Haeussler K, Bohus M, Lis S. Rejection Sensitivity and Symptom Severity in Patients With Borderline Personality Disorder: Effects of Childhood Maltreatment and Self-Esteem. Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2015;2:4. doi:10.1186/s40479-015-0025-x

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