Monday, July 2, 2012

Extinction Bursts in Borderline Personality Disorder

The mind of a Borderline is a battle zone.

This is even more apparent when the process of therapeutic healing begins. We may hate how we feel, but hate the thought that there’s something “wrong” with who we are just as much. It’s important to be reminded of the fact that there’s nothing wrong with who the person is themselves, there’s something going on in their brain that’s destructive beyond their control. It’s not their fault. The mind is turning on itself because it doesn’t recognize it’s reflection as a friend. This isn’t something we chose. But there is something we can do about it.

Unfortunately just because we decide we hate how we feel, hate what is going on around us, hate how we effect the people in our lives, that doesn’t mean it is simple to change all these behaviors. Our brains have been programmed, conditioned, to response the way they do and it takes time and practice to re-route these ways of thinking. To make these old habits and intense responses disappear. Go extinct.

Extinction, when implemented consistently over time, results in the eventual decrease of the undesired behavior. However, in the short-term a person might exhibit what is called an extinction burst. An extinction burst will often occur when the extinction procedure has just begun; when we start a path towards healing. Until one day – BAM. It’s like our brains rebel and there’s a magnificent relapse. We may have an extinction burst.

Extinction Bursts are the psyche’s last magnificent attempt to produce a response it needs but has been denied. It consists of a sudden and temporary increase in the maladaptive response's frequency, followed by the eventual decline and extinction of the behavior targeted for elimination.

Let’s back up a bit. How did we acquire these destructive traits in the first place? In most cases they were responses we developed by how we were conditioned growing up.

There are two kinds of conditioning – classical and operant.

In classical conditioning, something which normally doesn’t have any influence becomes a trigger for a response.

If you are taking a shower and someone flushes the toilet which then causes the water to become a scalding torrent, you become conditioned to recoil in terror the next time you hear the toilet flush while lathering up.

That’s classical conditioning. Something neutral – the toilet flushing – becomes charged with meaning and expectation. You have no control over it. You recoil from the water without ever thinking, “I should recoil from this water else I get scalded.”

Classical conditioning keeps you alive. You learn quickly to avoid that which may harm you and seek out that which makes you happy.

Operant conditioning changes your desires. Your inclinations becomes greater through reinforcement, or diminish through punishment.

You go to work, you get paid. You turn on the air conditioning and stop sweating. You don’t run the red light, you don’t get a ticket. You pay the rent, you don’t get evicted.

It’s all operant conditioning, punishment and reward.

Which finally brings us back to the third factor – extinction.

When you expect a reward or a punishment and nothing happens, your conditioned response starts to fade away. If you stop feeding your cat, he will stop hanging around the food bowl and meowing. His behavior will go extinct.

If you were to keep going to work and not get paid, eventually you would stop.

This is when the extinction burst happens, right as the behavior is breathing its final breath.

You wouldn’t just not go to work anymore. You would probably storm into the boss’s office and demand an explanation. If you got nowhere after gesticulating wildly and inventing new curse words out of your boss’s last name, you might scoop your arm across his desk and leave in handcuffs.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded.

Extinction burst Example: you enter an elevator and press the button, but nothing happens. You then press it again and wait, and still nothing happens. You then proceed to push the button a number of times rapidly and firmly, hoping that it will work. You may even get upset and punch the panel. When this meets with no results, only then will you realize that it is not responding to your actions, and that you will have to accept that it is broken and get out to use the stairs.

So what does this look like in Borderline Personality Disorder? 

For someone with BPD who has subconsciously relied on emotional outbursts to get the kind of attention they need it can be frightening to give up something we know will bring the person around whom we need. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a conscious thought. It can come across as manipulative, but it’s not deliberately manipulative. We act on instinct and fear, impulsively reacting to our brains panic when we lash out in a temper or threaten to hurt ourselves. We’re not trying hurt you on purpose, but in most cases we don’t have the language or understanding of ourselves to communicate what is actually going on and express what we need. We may not even know what we need. All we know is that we need something that we don’t have. When we’ve begun the healing process and we’re adopting more positive behaviors to replace our old maladaptive coping mechanisms, it’s easy for others to forget that we’re still struggling. We can still be triggered. Despite learning better ways of coping, we still have very hard days, but since they’re not always so easy to distinguish, the people in our lives may not really know. Somewhere in the depths our minds continues to reside that old standby.

An extinction burst is a temporary increase in an old behavior, a plea from the recesses of your psyche.
The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum. This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other people you will notice that people who are used to getting their way will start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request. If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be spectacular, enjoy! If it’s short lived, it will be over as quick as it started and you can feel good that you haven’t encouraged it. The best way to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst (walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with your attention as soon as the person stops.

Back to healing.

Sometimes healing can feel like you’re eliminating a reward from your life: the attention created by outbursts of emotion. Even when you want to give up the pain and emotional turmoil, the extinction burst threatens to demolish your resolve.

It’s like reverting back to the terrible two’s mentality. And like a toddler in their terrible two’s, if you give into the temper tantrums, they learn that it creates the response they desire and that behavior is strengthened.

Angry outbursts, panicked tears, threats to harm and suicide, they’re an addiction of emotion created under pressure until they’re ready to burst.

The human body craves sugars and high fat foods because we evolved to store fat in times of starvation when food wasn’t always abundant. Many of us now live in environments where we always have easy access to food, but we still have those biological imperatives to eat a lot and ruin our diets. For someone with BPD it’s like trying to fend of emotional starvation even though we may now be in an environment that is rich is a steady source of love.

These emotionally addictive responses were formed through conditioning over a long period of time. As Borderlines or {those near and dear to us}, we must be prepared to take cover from that last onslaught from our subconscious – the extinction burst.  

If these extinction bursts aren’t reinforced, it may be easier for us to get back on track. Extinction bursts may seem like a setback, but they’re perfectly natural. They are in no way fun or pleasant for anyone involved, but with continued healing they can be very temporary, and put back on the endangered coping response list.

They’re something to be aware of. At least be aware of the possibility for them. Healing is not a straight and easy path for Borderline Personality Disorder. Often there’s some relapsing in behavior. There’s some side-stepping and complicated footwork to really internalize better ways of dealing while we understand why the methods we’ve been conditioned towards are no longer necessary in our lives.  Old habits are hard to break, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. It may just take a few tries. 


  1. I'm so thankful to have found this blog. My whole life I have felt different and yes it's been my own crazy struggle just to exsist but everything described here fits to a tee. Now I freaking know what's been up my enTIRE life

    1. ::smiles:: Welcome! and I'm glad that you've found some understanding in my words.


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