The Emotional Cascade Model and Borderline Personality Disorder

At times the way people act can appear “self-sabotaging” or “self-destructive,” especially when from an outside perspective it would seem clear that their behavior is only going to make a bad situation worse.  Common examples of such “dysregulated” behaviors might include binging and purging, self-injury, “self-medicating” bad moods with drugs or alcohol, or impulsive shopping. So why would people engage in these self-sabotaging of self-damaging behaviors to “feel better?”  The Emotional Cascade Model (Selby & Joiner, 2009) proposes that people engage in dysregulated behaviors in response to a process called an “emotional cascade.”  In an emotional cascade, people think repetitively and intensely about an event that makes them feel negative emotion, and in this process they become more and more upset.  The end result is a self-amplifying positive feedback loop of intense rumination and negative emotion, which creates an emotional state which is extremely aversive, painful, and difficult to tolerate.  Dysregulated behaviors, as viewed by the Emotional Cascade Model, are then used to distract from emotional cascades through intense physical sensations.  These physical sensations may vary according to the behavior, but potential examples could include feelings of pain or the sight of blood in NSSI, or the tastes or textures of food or feeling of fullness in binge-eating.  Due to their potency, these sensations short-circuit the emotional cascade, decrease rumination and negative emotion, and result in subsequent, immediate feelings of relief.  However, dysregulated behaviors can lead to severe negative consequences over time.

Emotional Cascades and Borderline Personality Disorder

Although emotional cascades may affect many people, there is one psychological disorder in particular that may be characterized as a disorder of emotional cascades: borderline personality disorder (BPD).  This is a chronic and severe disorder with symptoms including stormy interpersonal relationships, emotions that are constantly fluctuating, and frequent dysregulated behaviors including suicidal behaviors (DSM-5, 2013).  Selby and Joiner (2009) have posited that BPD is a disorder where the core psychopathology results from emotional cascades, which occur more frequently and perhaps more intensely than in other disorders exhibiting behavioral dysregulation (i.e., substance use disorders, eating disorders).  In this sense, BPD may be viewed the extreme continuum of emotional cascades, whereas other disorders may be closer toward the center of this spectrum.  The EmP lab has conducted several studies suggesting that emotional cascades may be an important mechanism in the development of BPD, and this research is now helping inform the ways we treat BPD.