Borderline Personality Disorder

Less well-known but more common than bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder affects 2 percent of adults. It can manifest as mood instability and difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and has a high rate of self-injury without suicidal intent.


Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual's sense of identity.

Originally thought to be at the "borderline" of psychosis, people with BPD suffer from emotion regulation. While less well known than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, BPD is more common, affecting 2 percent of adults, mostly young women. There is a high rate of self-injury without suicide intent, as well as a significant rate of suicide attempts and completed suicide in severe cases. Patients often need extensive mental health services, and account for 20 percent of psychiatric hospitalizations. Yet, with help, many improve over time and are eventually able to lead productive lives.


While a person with depression or bipolar disorder typically endures the same mood for weeks, a person with BPD may experience intense bouts of anger, depression, or anxiety that may last only hours, or at most a day. These may be associated with episodes of impulsive aggression, self-injury, and drug or alcohol abuse. Distortions in cognition and sense of self can lead to frequent changes in long-term goals, career plans, jobs, friendships, gender identity, and values. Sometimes people with BPD view themselves as fundamentally bad or unworthy. They may feel unfairly misunderstood or mistreated, bored, empty, and have little idea who they are. Such symptoms are most acute when people with BPD feel isolated and lacking in social support and may result in frantic efforts to avoid being alone.

People with BPD often have highly unstable patterns of social relationships. While they can develop intense but stormy attachments, their attitudes toward family, friends, and loved ones may suddenly shift from idealization (great admiration and love) to devaluation (intense anger and dislike). Thus, they may form an immediate attachment and idealize the other person, but when a slight separation or conflict occurs, they switch unexpectedly to the other extreme and angrily accuse the other person of not caring for them at all.

Most people can tolerate ambivalence where they experience two contradictory states at one time. People with BPD, however, shift back and forth to a good or a bad state. If they are in a bad state, for example, they have no awareness of the good state.

Even with family members, individuals with BPD are highly sensitive to rejection, reacting with anger and distress to mild separations. Even a vacation, a business trip, or a sudden change in plans can spur negative thoughts. These fears of abandonment seem to be related to difficulties feeling emotionally connected to important persons when they are physically absent, leaving the individual with BPD feeling lost and perhaps worthless. Suicide threats and attempts may occur along with anger at perceived abandonment and disappointments.

People with BPD exhibit other impulsive behaviors, such as excessive spending, binge eating, and risky sex. BPD often occurs with other psychiatric problems, particularly bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other personality disorders.


Although the cause of BPD is unknown, both environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in predisposing patients to BPD symptoms and traits.

Studies show that many but not all individuals with BPD report a history of abuse, neglect, or separation as young children. Forty to 71 percent of BPD patients report having been sexually abused, usually by a noncaregiver.

Researchers believe that BPD results from a combination of individual vulnerability to environmental stress, neglect, or abuse as young children, and a series of events that trigger the onset of the disorder as young adults. Adults with BPD are also considerably more likely to be the victim of violence, including rape and other crimes. This may result from both harmful environments as well as impulsivity and poor judgment in choosing partners and lifestyles.

Neuroscience is revealing brain mechanisms underlying the impulsivity, mood instability, aggression, anger, and negative emotion seen in BPD. Studies suggest that people predisposed to impulsive aggression have impaired regulation of the neural circuits that modulate emotion. The brain's amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure, is an important component of the circuit that regulates negative emotion. In response to signals from other brain centers indicating a perceived threat, it marshals fear and arousal. This might be more pronounced under the influence of drugs like alcohol or stress. Areas in the front of the brain (prefrontal area) act to dampen the activity of this circuit. Recent brain imaging studies show that individual differences in the ability to activate regions of the prefrontal cerebral cortex thought to be involved in inhibitory activity predict the ability to suppress negative emotion.

Serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine are among the chemical messengers in these circuits that play a role in the regulation of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and irritability. Drugs that enhance brain serotonin function may improve emotional symptoms in BPD. Likewise, mood-stabilizing drugs that are known to enhance the activity of GABA, the brain's major inhibitory neurotransmitter, may help people who experience BPD-like mood swings. Such brain-based vulnerabilities can be managed with help from behavioral interventions and medications, much like people manage susceptibility to diabetes or high blood pressure.


Treatments for BPD have improved. Group and individual psychotherapy are at least partially effective for many patients. A new treatment termed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has been developed specifically to treat BPD, and this technique has looked promising in treatment studies. Pharmacological treatments are often prescribed based on specific target symptoms shown by the individual patient. Antidepressant drugs and mood stabilizers may be helpful for depressed and, or, labile mood. Antipsychotic drugs may also be used when there are distortions in thinking.


  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Revised.
  • Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
  • US Department of Health and Human Services
  • Journal of Personality Disorders
  • Psychiatric Clinics of North America
  • Comprehensive Psychiatry
  • Harvard Review of Psychiatry
  • Cerebrum, The Dana Forum on Brain Science
  • Psychological Bulletin
  • Science
Last reviewed 02/17/2015