Recent evidence from a group of American researchers indicates that a treatment called emotion regulation group therapy helps people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) avoid self-harming behavior by improving their emotional control. People with borderline personality disorder typically have a seriously reduced ability to control their emotional reactions to a wide range of daily circumstances. In turn, a lack of emotional control is associated with the self-harming behaviors often found in cases of the disorder. In a study published in February 2015 in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, researchers from three American universities explored the effect that emotion regulation group therapy has on the self-harming tendencies of individuals dealing with BPD.
BPD, Emotional Control and Self-Harm
Borderline personality disorder is one of three officially recognized personality disorders that primarily produce their damaging impacts by impairing affected individuals’ ability to control their behavior and avoid overreacting to potentially emotional situations. All such conditions (including antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder) are known as Cluster B personality disorders. In a person with BPD, specific symptoms of an inability to control emotional reactions may include a fear of real or imagined abandonment that leads to disproportionate outbursts of anger, sadness or panic; volatile personal relationships that teeter between outsized expressions of love and anger; and a tendency to react angrily to events or situations that don’t appear to merit an angry response. Many people with BPD also frequently participate in self-harming behavior not intended to produce death. In addition, suicidal thinking and actual suicide attempts are far from uncommon in affected individuals. In fact, figures compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that as many as four out of five people with borderline personality disorder will move beyond suicidal thinking to suicide-oriented action at some point in their lives. In people with the disorder, reported rates of completed suicide are as low as 4 percent and as high as 9 percent. Some researchers and mental health professionals believe that the lack of emotional control associated with BPD directly contributes to the heightened risk for non-suicidal self-injury and suicide-oriented behavior.
Emotion Regulation Group Therapy
Emotion regulation group therapy (ERGT) is a specific form of emotion regulation therapy (ERT), a treatment that incorporates aspects of several forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and a CBT offshoot called dialectical behavioral therapy. People taking part in ERT learn how to do such things as recognize and describe strong emotions, distinguish between different types of strong emotion, accept the presence of intense emotional states without reacting negatively, reduce the urge to avoid uncomfortable emotions and incorporate emotional reactions into a larger frame of reference that includes logical thought and judgment. After patients/clients learn these skills, they apply them in real-world situations with the help of their therapists. As its name implies, emotion regulation group therapy is ERT conducted in a group setting rather than in a one-on-one setting.
ERGT and Borderline Personality Disorder
In the study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, researchers from the University of Mississippi, Auburn University and Arizona State University used a project involving 61 women to assess the benefits of emotion regulation group therapy as a treatment for the self-harming behaviors commonly found in people with borderline personality disorder. All of these women had a BPD diagnosis and had a recent history of self-harm. Half of the study participants received ERGT shortly after enrolling in the project; the remainder received the therapy 14 weeks after their project enrollment. Nine months after each group received ERGT, the researchers assessed their treatment outcomes. After reviewing the results of the assessments, the researchers concluded that both groups of women substantially improved their ability to regulate their emotions after receiving a course of ERGT. They also concluded that improved emotional control associated with participation in ERGT led to a meaningful decline in borderline personality disorder symptoms. In addition, the researchers concluded that those women with the greatest increases in emotional control after ERGT participation had the highest chances of reducing their levels of involvement in various self-injuring behaviors. The study’s authors believe that their findings confirm the improved ability to regulate emotion as the underlying key to the success of ERGT as a treatment for borderline personality disorder-related self-harm.