People who have suffered childhood trauma are at increased risk for psychological problems resulting from extreme stress. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one such condition that has been linked to severe childhood trauma. When the trauma is inflicted by a caregiver, the child’s ability to cope is significantly impaired. The effects of unhealthy coping, attachment dysfunction, and emotional regulation can affect many areas of the child’s life as they continue into adulthood. Affect dysregulation is the inability to control one’s moods and emotions and has been linked to BPD and other mental illnesses. Underregulation of emotions is expressed by lack of control, extreme emotional overwhelm; while overregulation is the result of numbing and is exhibited by an inability to express emotions. To determine which of these factors is more indicative of BPD in adults who suffered trauma during childhood by their primary caregiver (TPC), Annemiek van Dijke of the Delta Psychiatric Hospital in the Netherlands conducted a study of 472 clients with a diagnosis of BPD.
The participants’ levels of affect regulation were documented and they were evaluated for various forms of TPC, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional trauma. Van Dijke found that 63% of the participants had experienced some form of TPC and that those with underregulation had more symptoms of BPD than the participants with overregulated affect. Although the study did not consider other factors that could influence BPD, such as family history, other traumas, and the mental health of the caregivers, the results clearly emphasize the importance of examining emotional regulation, and specifically underregulation, in clients with a history of TPC.
The findings also showed that the participants with TPC were at increased risk for posttraumatic stress (PTSD). But Van Dijke noted that no research has been conducted to determine exactly how specific forms of TPC affect the severity of PTSD symptoms or how they are indirectly affected through affect regulation as a result of TPC. In sum, Van Dijke believes that these results can benefit clients who have suffered TPC by educating clinicians on the importance of helping clients build more secure relationships and develop healthier emotional expressions.
Van Dijke, A., Ford, J. D., van Son, M., Frank, L., & van der Hart, O. (2012). Association of childhood-trauma-by-primary caregiver and affect dysregulation with borderline personality disorder symptoms in adulthood. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027256
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