Monday, October 14, 2013

Unpleasant Words Trigger Strong Startle Response in People with Borderline Personality Disorder

I found this little article and I immediately related to it. I’ve mentioned something like it before. Do you remember in this post when I discussed when our non BPD Loved Ones could be unintentionally triggering us without even knowing it? I mentioned a story about a guy I knew in high school that would try to get me drunk at parties and take advantage of me sexually. He always used to call me “kid” or “kiddo”. So now, whenever anyone calls me kid or kiddo I’m automatically triggered into feeling and remember him trying to rape me.  Just hearing the word, even if the person doesn’t know that it’s a problem and is being completely innocuous about it, makes me incredibly angry and defensive. They can instantly change my mood. Cognitively I know that these people don’t mean anything by it, and I make a real effort to not show my discomfort now, but even so much as a couple years ago, my startle and impulse control over my tongue was not so, well, controlled. I have quite a few triggering words like this. This is why I always reiterate that it’s important for us to discover and know our own triggers, so that we can effectively communicate and alleviate people in our lives tripping them.

Potential physiological marker for a severe mental disorder
Science Update • August 22, 2007

Adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD) showed excessive emotional reactions when looking at words with unpleasant meanings compared to healthy people during an emotionally stimulating task, according to NIMH-funded researchers. They also found that people with more severe BPD showed a greater difference in emotional responding compared to people with less severe BPD. The study was published in the August 1, 2007, issue of Biological Psychiatry.

This study recorded responses during stimulating tasks, but personally I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be during a task at all really. It can be over tea, watching television, or just during a normal conversation. But hey, they’re scientists, they always have to have people doing something.

Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by intense fear of abandonment and/or rejection, problems controlling emotions, troubled relationships, impulsive or reckless behaviors, and other symptoms. The disorder affects roughly 1.4 percent of adults ages 18 and older in the United States.

Erin Hazlett, Ph.D., of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and colleagues measured the startle eyeblink response, a measure of emotional reactivity, in 27 people with BPD and 21 healthy people. Past research shows that people are generally more startled during unpleasant situations than during emotionally neutral ones. During the study, each participant was shown a random series of words, some with neutral emotional meaning (such as "collect," "regular," "actually") and some with unpleasant meanings, particularly for people with BPD (such as "hate," "lonely," "abandon"). The participants would hear a brief startling burst of static noise at unpredictable intervals—sometimes while a word was shown, sometimes between words, and sometimes not at all.

Abandon, abuse, shame, and words like are often typically stressful for those of us who have experienced these kinds of trauma. However, as we’re mostly individuals with unique personalities, our trigger words will tend to be highly personalized as well.

The researchers found that both groups of participants had similar startle reactions when viewing neutral words. But people with BPD were more startled than healthy adults by the static burst when looking at unpleasant words. Also, people with more BPD symptoms showed a greater difference in startle reaction when viewing unpleasant words vs. neutral words compared to people with less severe BPD. This finding suggests that unstable emotions and impulsiveness in people with BPD may be related to an exaggerated startle reflex. The researchers' study presents an objective way to measure the problems with mood and emotional responses that are hallmark symptoms of BPD, suggesting a potentially useful adjunct to self-reported information when diagnosing and treating the disorder.

I do like having the startle words and noise effect presentation of Non-BPD vs. BPD persons as a controlled way of seeing how the two groups of people respond differently for comparison. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that those of us with BPD would respond with greater reactions at all, but it’s also nice to see that it’s reflexive. Many people think that our reactionary responses are a cry for attention or done on purpose to intentionally hurt the people in our lives. The more and more of these studies I find the more obvious it becomes that the things we do are a product of our neurology and the defense mechanisms our brains have created to counter (albeit maladaptively) the abuse and trauma we’ve experienced in our lives. 

What do you think? Do you have any triggering words? It’s important to know your own.


Hazlett EA, Speiser LJ, Goodman M, Roy M, Carrizal M, Wynn JK, Williams WC, Romero M, Minzenberg MJ, Siever LJ, New AS.Exaggerated affect-modulated startle during unpleasant stimuli in borderline personality disorder. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Aug 1;62(3):250-5.
1 Lenzenweger MF, Lane MC, Loranger AW, Kessler RC. DSM-IV Personality Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jan 8; [Epub ahead of print]

2 Lang PJ, Bradley MM, Cuthbert BN. Emotion, attention, and the startle reflex. Psychol Rev. 1990 Jul;97(3):377-95.


  1. Interesting experiment with the results one would expect.'s interesting the idea of someone having 'words' that trigger them. It makes sense though.
    I don't have any 'trigger words' I guess, since I'm not Borderline. But it makes me wonder whether the person I know with BPD has trigger words and what they might be. It's not something we've discussed before and nothing immediately springs to mind as to what they might be. I don't know maybe 'daddy'? Haha I'm just guessing here. But interesting, very interesting.
    And I feel sympathy that this guy took advantage of you and raped you. What a horrific thing to go through and I feel deep sorrow on your behalf, I'm sure I couldn't even imagine how horrible that would have been. But anyway, don't wanna be depressing or anything. I admire your honesty.

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