A new study published this month in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology may shed some light on the very intense "all or nothing" emotions that are experienced by individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Michael Suvak, Ph.D. and colleagues studied the emotion regulation problems of women with BPD from an emotional granularity perspective. Emotional granularity refers to an individual's ability to use information about valence (i.e., pleasantness versus unpleasantness) and arousal (i.e., high arousal versus low arousal) in distinguishing between emotional states. People who are high in emotional granularity can make clear distinctions between even closely related emotional states; for example, they can distinguish anger from irritation. Those in low emotional granularity have difficulty incorporating available valence and arousal information into their representation of emotion. So, they may label emotions like anger, sadness, and fear as "feeling bad" with no distinction between the emotions.
Dr. Suvak and his colleagues posited that individuals with BPD have low emotional granularity. Using a laboratory paradigm, they examined emotional granularity in 46 women meeting BPD criteria versus 51 controls (women without Axis I or II psychopathology).
The researchers found that women with BPD were indeed lower in emotional granularity than controls. Specifically, the women with BPD tended to use more valence information and less arousal information when representing emotions. In other words, these findings suggest that when someone with BPD encounters an emotion that is unpleasant at a low intensity, they represent that in the same way that they would represent an emotion that is unpleasant at a high intensity. So, their reaction to having a friend tell them they have to get off the phone could be represented in the same way as their reaction to having a friend tell them the friendship is over.
This is a very interesting and novel research finding, and is the first step in a program of research that may ultimately shed a lot of light on the emotional life of people with BPD.