Understanding the Link Between Borderline Personality Disorder and Substance Abuse

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental disorder that affects about 1.6% of the population and is characterized by instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. It is also characterized by an intense fear of abandonment or rejection from others as well as chronic feelings of emptiness. Similarly to bipolar disorder, people with BPD are often prone to substance abuse; they may use drugs or alcohol for relief from their symptoms.

Understanding this link between Borderline Personality Disorder and Substance Abuse may help those who suffer from these conditions find better ways of coping with their difficulties.

What Causes BPD Patients to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental disorder that affects certain parts of the brain and causes a person to have ongoing problems managing his or her emotions, controlling behaviors, sustaining relationships and handling normal stresses in life.

People who suffer from BPD may be attracted to drugs or alcohol because they are looking for an escape from the problems associated with their symptoms. Drugs and alcohol can help them to forget that their life is chaotic, but they will not be able to cope with their disorder on just a substance-related fix alone.

Alcohol is often the drug of choice in people with Borderline Personality Disorder because it reduces inhibitions and allows them to express emotion.

Studies by the NIMH have shown that people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder are more likely than other groups of humans to abuse drugs or alcohol. Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences in Durham, North Carolina said that “a recent study has shown that there is an increased risk of substance abuse in patients with this disorder.”

A person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder may come to depend on substances to feel normal or to self-medicate. They may also use substances to cope with the feelings of rejection or abandonment that are a common symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Fear of Abandonment

NAMI suggests that people with this disorder have an intense fear of being abandoned by others. This fear often makes them very dependent on other people for their sense of safety, comfort and self-worth.

What happens when the object of their dependency is no longer there? It may become too much to bear. They may turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape from these feelings.

two young girls partake in drugs

Childhood Trauma

Another NIMH study showed that in patients with BPD, there is a higher percentage of childhood emotional trauma, which may increase the risk for substance abuse.

While that person struggles to cope with their feelings or finds support in others who have gone through similar experiences, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping. In this way, they are able to separate themselves from the emotions that they would experience if they were sober.

It makes sense for those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder to use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping. They do so not because they are looking for an escape, but because it helps them feel normal in their abnormal life.

Numbing the Pain

Some psychologists suggest that some people find that drugs numb them to the pain in their lives, but these effects are often temporary and can be dangerous.

Many who crave a feeling of control over life have difficulty finding ways other than substance abuse to meet this goal. It is at this point that the drug serves as a behavioral ‘scab’ in helping them deal with life’s problems.

nude woman smoked on a bed while alcohol bottles sit on a tv behind her

Emotional Dysregulation

Borderline Personality Disorder is also called Emotional Dysregulation. This is a term used to describe a poor emotional response that does not fall within the traditional range of reactions. It is frequently referred to as marked fluctuation of mood, mood swings or labile mood.

Those with Emotional Dysregulation may have angry outbursts, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self harm, and other self-damaging behaviors including – you guessed it – substance abuse.

In order to learn how to overcome emotional dysregulation, patients must find ways to cope on their own through therapy and support groups so that they can learn how to feel normal without the use of drugs or alcohol.

Abuse and Addiction

There is a profound link between drug abuse and Borderline Personality Disorder. When drugs and alcohol are used as a coping strategy for emotional dysregulation, the abuse can lead to addiction in those who are predisposed to it. Drugs serve as a “quick fix” to the emotional problems caused by Borderline Personality Disorder.

Symptoms of BPD have sometimes been described as exacerbated by using drugs and alcohol, while others describe alleviation of symptoms from their use. For those who find their symptoms alleviated are more prone to continue abusing substances.

It is important to realize that they do not use them because they suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder; rather, they find that drugs and alcohol become a part of their lives while suffering from this syndrome.

a woman sits in front of a window smoking

Education & Awareness

Curing Borderline Personality Disorder is impossible without first treating the symptoms of this syndrome. Doctors must learn how to recognize when people with BPD need help coping with their mental illness before they are willing to accept treatment.

If Borderline Personality Disorder is treated effectively with therapy and support for those who suffer from it, then there should be a decrease in the number of people whose only means of healing is through drugs or alcohol.

The first step is education; however, the stigma associated with BPD is very real. Every patient is unique in the symptoms and how they manifest. Raising awareness about the disorder can help to keep patients from hiding away or rejecting their diagnoses. Public awareness will help doctors understand how to best treat Borderline Personality Disorder, and what kind of treatment will be most effective for each individual patient.

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental illness that must be treated as such. Doctors must learn how to recognize when people with Borderline Personality Disorder need help coping with their mental illness before they are willing to accept treatment. If Borderline Personality Disorder is treated effectively with therapy and support for those who suffer from it, then there should be a decrease in the number of people whose only means of healing is through drugs or alcohol.

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