Borderline personality disorder: stress reactivity or stress generation? A prospective dimensional study

Timothy A Allen, Alexandre Y Dombrovski, Paul H Soloff, Michael N Hallquist
Psychological Medicine 2020 July 27, : 1-8

BACKGROUND: Individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) often describe their lives as stressful and unpredictable. However, it is unclear whether the adversity faced by those with BPD is a product of stress reactivity or stress generation. Here, we examined the dynamic, prospective associations between BPD and stressful life events over 3 years. Given the heterogeneity present in BPD, we sought to understand which empirically derived dimensions of this heterogeneous disorder explain stress reactivity v. stress generation.

METHODS: Participants included 355 individuals diagnosed with BPD and followed longitudinally at three annual assessments. Auto-regressive cross-lagged panel models were used to examine prospective associations between stressful life events and three latent dimensions implicated in BPD: negative affect, disinhibition, and antagonism.

RESULTS: Antagonism and disinhibition, but not negative affect, prospectively predicted dependent stressful life events (events the individual may have some role in). Evidence for decompensation under stress was more tenuous, with independent stressful life events (those presumably outside the individual's control) predicting increases in negative affect.

CONCLUSIONS: Our longitudinal study of a well-characterized clinical sample found more evidence for stress generation than for stress-induced decompensation in BPD. Stress generation in BPD is driven by externalizing dimensions: antagonism and disinhibition. These results highlight the utility of empirically derived dimensions for parsing heterogeneity present in BPD, leading to improvements in diagnostic evaluation, clinical prediction, and individualized approaches to treatment planning.

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