BPD and PTSD: Symptom Overlap

Charlie was like most of the women sitting in her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recovery group. She’d experienced intense feelings of abandonment, fear and repeated instances of trauma. Her mother had been addicted to crack cocaine during Charlie’s elementary school years and had taken Charlie with her into places no adult should go, let alone children. Sometimes, in the throes of her drug, she had left Charlie there for days at a time not knowing when her mother would return for her.

After her mother was killed during an armed burglary of their apartment, Charlie was placed in the custody of the state of New York. She was able to remain in one foster home for the duration of her teenage years due to the patience and commitment of a woman who’d given refuge to many children who had experienced lives as unsettling as Charlie’s. But Charlie was somehow different; as she got older, she did not experience greater calm or peace. Her friendships and romances were whirlwind affairs of intrigue and excitement, which quickly turned bitter and chaotic. She seemed to have a way of burning bridges with 10 tons of dynamite, then wondering painfully why the people she’d loved would not accept her back into their arms. She could be highly impulsive, frenzied and joyous one moment, despairing and self-harming the next.

This tumultuous temperament continued into Charlie’s adulthood, leading to a string of unsuccessful jobs, unhappy relationships and days or weeks at a time spent behind the walls of a psychiatric hospital, where Charlie never seemed to get the help she needed. After a particularly dire suicide attempt in the spring of her 26th year, Charlie was sent to a new hospital—one with a doctor on staff who seemed to sense that her previous diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD were not the only issues Charlie faced. He diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and there ever afterward, her life would be very different. She discovered that BPD, while highly troubling to sufferers and loved ones, could be overcome. She spent the next four years in intensive therapy, but had seemed to hit a plateau in her recovery. There were still traumatic issues from which she needed to recover, however, and learning that some of her PTSD symptoms overlapped with her BPD symptoms was a vital clue in helping her take the next steps toward a healthier, happier life.

Is PTSD Holding Back Your Recovery?

Many of those who will be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder have in some way experienced early trauma, creating the catalyst for their disorder (APA 1994). When trauma is a factor, post-traumatic stress is often not far behind, thus BPD and PTSD commonly co-occur. Studies indicate that 25 percent to 60 percent of people with BPD also experience PTSD, numbers much higher than in the general population.

When a person struggles with past-trauma on top of BPD, several complex issues may arise or overlap. For example:

  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Poor emotional control
  • Problems with irritability or anger
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Overwhelming guilt, shame or hopelessness
  • Impulsive and/or self-destructive behaviors
  • Highly changeable beliefs or personality traits
  • Obsessive-compulsive symptoms
  • Dissociation
  • Higher instance of hospitalizations
  • Higher instance of suicidal thoughts

Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Certain treatments for BPD, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), have been shown to be simultaneously effective for the treatment of PTSD symptoms. The book “The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide” (New Harbinger Publications) by Drs. Alexander L. Chapman and Kim L. Gratz, offers useful steps to sufferers of BPD who are looking to recover—steps that may also be quite useful in addressing trauma and its effects.

There are many online resources for sufferers of both these challenges, as well. Taken with the support of a therapist, the issues presented by co-occurring BPD and PTSD may be at first difficult to navigate, but not impossible to overcome.

On December 11th, 2013, posted in: Mental Health by Tags: