Most people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have BPD 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.
What Is 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, as in something that happens in your mind (i.e., 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.
The most common BPD triggers are relationship triggers. 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 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 (i.e., "She probably hates me," or "I'll never have a friend who sticks by my side.") With these spiraling thoughts come spiraling symptoms (i.e., intense emotions, anger, urges to self-harm).
Sometimes people with BPD are triggered by internal events, for example thoughts, that can seemingly come out of the blue. This is particularly true for people who have BPD related to traumatic events (i.e., child abuse).
For example, a memory or image of a past experience (e.g., 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 you. To determine what your triggers are, try this exercise: "How to Identify Triggers."
Once you've learned your most troubling triggers, you have a few 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 could choose to not watch that movie. Many triggers, however, can't be avoided so easily.
Finally, if you find that some of your triggers cannot be avoided, you can make a plan for coping (See also, "Coping With Triggers".)
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Welch SS, Linehan MM. "High-Risk Situations Associated with Parasuicide and Drug Use in Borderline Personality Disorder." Journal of Personality Disorders 16:561-569, 2002.