Researcher, clinician and professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, Dr. Antonia New discusses recovery and borderline personality disorder. She specializes in borderline personality disorder, exploring the neurobiological underpinnings of this disorder as well as the implications of these findings on treatment. Her research focus is on impulsive aggression and she uses neuroimaging techniques, genetic studies, and laboratory assessment of behavior and treatment studies.
Click on the play button below to listen:
Some links to Dr. New’s work:
- Quieting the Storm of Borderline Personality Disorder.
- An Opioid Deficit in Borderline Personality Disorder.
I’m Dr. Antonia New. I’m a psychiatrist. My work has been predominantly in the neurobiology of BPD but also in trying to look at what are the core features, core phenomenology of borderline personality disorder and how can we understand it — and moving towards how can we help people with BPD recovery. It’s been a central point in my career.
AW: What is your definition on recovery with BPD?
AN: I think one of my patients said best what I think — which is the first part of the treatment is to decrease symptoms and keep people safe. But the idea is to not just develop and to be able to function but to be able to live. That’s her perspective.
I think the place we want to go is the place we haven’t gone yet in treatment. And that is to have people with BPD to have less moments with intrapschic pain, psychological distress. To diminish that sense of inner pain. That lasts longer than the symptoms, the behaviors that people do to diminish that intrapsychic pain.
So we’re pretty good at helping people reduce symptoms, reduce behaviors that are maybe self-destructive behaviors in many arenas. Many of our treatments are accomplishing that. I think it’s harder to accomplish a more contented sense of self and with that a sense of less pain. So that would be my definition.
AW: As far as the realm of neurobiology, is there anything we can learn about recovery?
AN: Well, neurobiology is as yet — our tools are pretty imprecise. So we know certain things about borderline personality disorder. Some of them are very specific to borderline personality disorder but most of them — the brain imaging findings for example — span a variety of psychiatric disorders. So the model, for example, the part of the brain that modulates emotional responses is less active with patients of BPD in response to emotional probes. The part of the brain that typically is most focused upon is they amygdala, might be hyperactive when in response to emotional probes, signifying a hypereactivity in emotionality.
That’s true in borderline patients, but it’s also true in individuals with anxiety disorders and other things. So that’s not very specific. So I’m not sure as yet that they can be targets in any way mark recovery. Although there are studies going on, including here at Mt. Sinai, looking at what happens to those biomarkers after treatment with DBT comparing people who respond well and don’t respond. So there may be kind of a marker for recovery, but I’m not sure it’s causal in some sense.
So brain imaging findings are one thing. We do know more specific finding with individuals with BPD with repeated exposure to unpleasant circumstances and negatively valenced emotional probes in the laboratory… most people habituate toward it, so if you are exposed again and again to negative stimuli, the experience of how negative they are goes down. We know, for patients with BPD, that habituation as robust. In fact, if anything they increase their response.
So, that leaves patients in the real world with the experience, let’s say you do something challenging that’s made you frightened or upset. And you get through it but you have some emotional pain during it. It’s harder to experience the success of that.
For example, if you have been afraid to go on a trip because there will be people that you care about but you know will get into conflicts with. And you do it, but there are moments of distress. Actually, you end up feeling that you remember more of that distress than the sense of having that distress gone down because you accomplished what you intended to do.
So what does that mean for recovery? If we can explain to patients that in fact they have a harder time decreasing their responses — and that’s part of what DBT can do which is to teach people how to use different strategies to decrease their affect, their emotional responses by using other kinds of soothing strategies and skills to calm down — that requires more deliberate effort for patients with BPD. But in fact is accomplishable. So that’s the link between neurobiology and treatment.
In terms of recovery what would be ideal is not to have that hyper-response in the first place and not to feel so vulnerable to those emotional stresses.
So there’s another arena that we have looked at that I have written about and that Barbara Stanley has written about…and Larry Siever. There is a theory or model for BPD for which there is some evidence that has to do with the opiate system.
Now in human beings, all of us have circulating opiates and keflans? and endorphins. We don’t know precisely why they are needed but they do for example, when you get hurt by something, it in fact hurts a lot in the beginning, it attenuates and then goes down. There are all kinds of ways in dealing with minor injuries or injuries that allow you to go forward and function and perhaps it’s very adaptive.
One theory for patients with borderline personality disorder don’t have as robust of an internal opiate response. The opiates are not only involved in pain and it’s sort of an interesting… there are pain abnormalities have been described. But it’s also true that opiates are involved in attachments, soothing. So when a baby is cuddled by his or her mother, opiates are part of the soothing mechanism. That’s been described in great detail in animals and we as people are undoubtedly no exception to that mammalian response.
So apart of being soothed in that attachment relationship is in fact the endogynous opiates. So if in fact people with BPD have too little opiates, that soothing doesn’t happen as successfully. It also gives a promising idea of why cutting happens. If there’s too little endogynous opiates and that it’s part of the way we regulate our mood, if you cut yourself then the opiates are released, so there’s an attempt to bring back that experience, to bring opiate levels back to normal.
So there are attractive ideas for which there are only some proof — brain imaging and genetics proof — and so there’s been a lot of discussion in using opiates in the treatment of BPD but there’s some conflict about whether there’s a risk in creating addictions. That’s some of the ways neurobiology links to possible methods of treatments.
And treatment isn’t precisely the same thing as recovery. For those of us in this field, I think none of us are satisfied that we have great treatments for BPD. We have at this point, no FDA approved drugs for this disorder. And that’s pretty unusual on psychiatric disorders. Many medications are used and we have some evidence that they help, but they help a little bit.
So that’s one issue, the issue of pharmocology. And we have quite effective psychotherapies, at least in terms of DBT and Mentalization Based Therapy, which have been very well studied. Those two forms of treatment end up decreasing symptoms substantially. But it’s not clear that they increase people’s ability to function better. People are still left with some difficulty fully engaging in work life. And sometimes difficulty engaging and sustaining relationships.
I think the DBT model, relationships improve. And I know M. Linehan is working very intensively on creating a sort of, second phase of DBT… reconstructing job skills to help people. So that is a promising development. So recovery would be to have satisfying relationships, work effectively and have less intrapsychic pain — which is possibly the mechanism for which those things are interrupted.
And MBT has been developed in the British mental health system and has worked extremely effectively. But I think the context of the population it’s used in Britain are people who have many other comorbid problems and so while the BPD symptoms are decreased, there’s a lot of collateral damage in there lives about what’s happened, so it’s harder for them to get back on track and work.
Transference Focused Therapy has been a therapy that has been studied from evidence based approach less thoroughly. But I think clinically it aspires more to full recovery. It aspires to deal with that intrapsychic pain. Therefore the aspiration is to reach a fuller point of recovery. And whether TFP does that more successfully or whether DBT when it’s followed by the secondary step in engaging in job focus is an open question, I think we don’t yet know the answer.
AW: What do you see in the future of research and recovery?
People are starting to figure out what is the role of engaging families. People are talking about integrated treatments, integrated model using pieces from all the different treatments. There’s another avenue of treatment, sort of the sequential model that the DBT model that’s being examined in Seattle which is the DBT recovery of symptoms and then moving to a more into a systemetized way of getting back into the job market. One is that strategy and the other is the integrated models.
I think there is an increased effort to realize that probably for people with BPD there’s going to be a life-long sensitivity to emotional changes — and maybe even a hyper-sensitivity to interactions with others. And that in some ways, that can be very painful but in others can be a gift because that allows people to really be sensitive to the people around them. It’s a perceptiveness. But in fact the ability to not over react to that perception and to kind of hold it in mind, but use it to weave a narrative that could be potentially very creative impulse but in fact I think it often leaves people barraged with intense feelings in the context of relationships.
The idea is, how can we get beyond decreasing cutting behaviors, impulsivity to creating not only more relationships but satisfying relationships, a less turbulent sense of self, a less vulnerability about how one feels about oneself, and creating stable relationships, and the ability to work and this sense internally of being less fragile. So that would be the goal and we don’t know yet and my own take on this, though I’ve spent my career on neurobiology — when you go to meetings […] it strikes me that we in neurobiology have been looking for medications for BPD and the effect size is small. Even if they work, they work just a little bit.
But when you look at the psychotherapies that work, the effect size is big. People really do get better. So I think we need to be much more focused on the strategies within psychotherapies to help people. That isn’t to say we should ignore things like the opiate system or other things as possible mechanisms. People have tried neuropeptides and oxytocin and I think I think it’s an open question on whether they are helpful or not. It’s not that there’s no psychopharmological approach is just that so far the effect size of that pharmocology has been small compared to the much more robust effect of therapy.
AW: How does the feel as a neurobiologist?
AN: You know, that’s a very good question. It has lead me to shift my career a little bit. So that perception lead me to put on a grant with Marianne Goodman to use DBT in treating suicidal veterans — not all of whom have BPD. But that’s a very much more clinical grant. She’s actually taking the lead into that grant.
I also moved to being the director of student education because I feel as if teaching people how to behave, not just for people with borderline personality disorder, but the role of doctors in learning to recognize mental illness in a broad sense and to destigmatize mental illness and to treat all their patients with respect is hugely important.
And it has lead me to begin to contemplate collaborative research in psychotherapies which is a shift for me. I don’t take it as a kind of insult to my career, I take it to be — I mean I may also do a pharmological treatment with an opiate but as yet I haven’t determined that there’s one I’m really happy with in terms of the risk of abuse and so there are various opportunities that might be developing in terms of new drugs but we’re not there yet.
So my approach is not to be discourage by that but to be intellectually honest about that and to say, okay, given what I perceive, where can I be most effective to people.
AW: Do you find any myths to BPD & recovery?
AN: Terrible problems with this. Yes. I think there is — and this is a part of the education piece about what I do and that is to create… every year a hundred and sixty doctors who don’t share those myths. I think there’s a general sense for people with BPD that they are untreatable. And if you read on the internet, there’s a lot of misinformation about that.
I mean I believe in telling people this is what your diagnosis is because first of all I think a lot of doctors don’t even say you have BPD because there’s a sense that somehow that’s an insult rather than a diagnosis. I think if you don’t tell people, I think you deprive people of the opportunity to look for evidence based treatment; to recognize, when I tell my patients this is what you have and these are the features, they typically are relieved that it’s a recognizable syndrome and that it’s not something bizarre about me. So I think that that is actually enormously helpful. I think, though, you can look at the internet and find some pretty scary things about the trajectory. Whereas the evidence like in Mary Zanarini’s studies and long term psychotherapy treatment studies show a lot of improvement — not full recovery at this point, we’re working on that.
So I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. And I think some of the stigma about BPD arises from the sense that doctors and therapist have that it’s untreatable. If it’s untreatable then we feel bad about ourselves because we don’t know what to do… because we like to know what to do. When you learn what to do and you have tools to help your patients, suddenly it’s not an insulting diagnosis. It’s actually an educational diagnosis. That’s the transition that we need to make…
Anybody engaged in effective treatment stops having that sense of being hopeless. I think that treatment isn’t widely available in this country. There isn’t the expertise. And part of it is because it’s a psychotherapy-based treatment, there aren’t the resources available to people with BPD to get the proper treatment. People don’t have the money to do long term therapy…
AW: Do you think people with BPD carry myths of their own?
AN: Well my patients often do because they’ve often been treated a lot before I see them and often not successfully. For example it’s very common for people with BPD to be treated for depression. And people who have BPD and depression are not very responsive to antidepressants as people who just have depression. So people feel like, oh, I’m hopeless. I can’t be treated because it didn’t work. Well, the wrong thing was being treated, so it didn’t work.
So in terms of self experience, I don’t know. Some of my patients feel that they are bad or something is deeply wrong with them but I think many come to the point that that has arisen out of many interpersonal conflicts that occurred. And so as you begin to get people to be less reactive — to decrease that reactivity — so that the sense of being bad is less reinforced because relationships become more successful.
AW: I always have that sense of I’m not good enough. It’s something I always have to work on. But my recovery has been more about believing in a sense that I can do it. And then doing the work that my therapist and I have planned and actually pull through it has helped me.
AN: So the success in getting through it allows you to get better. I think that’s what I mean about intrapsychic pain — sort of that terrible sense of self. That there is a possibility of addressing it, but to recognize their successes as successes, so when they’ve mastered something then that’s a mastery and really good.
I think it’s hard. Everybody struggles with different things. But recognize that there’s this nascent — and I believe heritable vulnerability, this vulnerable sense of self and hyper-reactivity — recognizing that and realizing that people struggle with anxiety and depression… I think the trouble for BPD is that most of the time people have fairly unsuccessful treatment along the way, so that reinforces the sense of failure. I would hope that would turn around as people started to feel that they are in fact mastering. That self esteem that feels terrible — that feeling of deep vulnerability — begins to shift because people begin to have successes. Even those successes can be in baby steps. So [for example] commitment to treatment, finding an alternate strategy that isn’t self destructive to deal with distress.
As those things progress that begins to heal, that would be my hope anyway.
AW: in your clinical experience, do you see any characteristics or traits that with people who have been more successful in their recovery?
I think the common thread is people who are able to draw other people to them in some way. People who can begin to sustain those friendships early one. It doesn’t have to be many but to just be able to pull that in.
And the second thing I would say is the ability to make a committed, attached relationship with a therapist with an aspiration to get well. I think the ability to attached to a therapist and to feel like there’s a partnership that’s gone on and that partnership is one of mutual respect and that the therapist is on his or her side; to be able to perceive that as a healthy relationship.
I think the basic commitment to therapy and the commitment to getting well and the ability to develop a trusting relationship with the therapist, and to have a few supportive people around who can also perceive the baby steps of success — that’s where the family piece comes in by the way — I think that is the most predictive of success.
There is some data relatively high IQ can be an advantage because you can use the cognitive strategies a little more — I’m not sure if there’s enough evidence. My own feeling is that it’s the ability to attach and trust a treatment that’s most predictive.
AW: Anything else about recovery and BPD?
AN: Well, we have work to do. To try and figure out how to help people feel not only that we have mastered the symptoms but that they’re thriving. That’s really what we want for all our patients, to help everybody thrive. And that thriving could look different for different people.
For some people, thriving might not involve a committed romantic relationship. Some people their thriving is in a different arena. For some people that attachment can be met by friendships and they get a lot out of their work life and for other people, the committed, personal relationships are very salient and work life could be a little bit secondary.
I think it’s individualized and for people to thrive is what we’re aiming for. I don’t think we yet have full enough information to how we can get to that stage. But that’s the next task.