What Is a Proximal Risk Factor?

Proximal Risk Factor and Borderline Personality Disorder

Child Abuse
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When talking about borderline personality disorder (BPD) and its causes, researchers are still uncertain of how or why BPD actually occurs. Many people with BPD show common backgrounds, but they are not universal among all BPD patients. 

What Causes BPD?

In addition to environmental factors like experiencing abuse as a child, scientists suggest that BPD could be linked to genetics or brain abnormalities.

Some studies of people with BPD have shown that it could be an inherited trait. People with BPD often have members of their family tree who also experienced BPD. Other research has shown that people with BPD show different brain activity than other individuals, particularly in the areas that regulate impulsive behaviors and emotional responses. 

Along with these potential causes, certain risk factors can be linked to BPD, including both proximal risk factors and distal risk factors. These risk factors are very different in how they are connected to BPD.

What is a Proximal Risk Factor?

A proximal risk factor is a risk factor that precipitates a disease, such as BPD. They represent an immediate vulnerability for a particular condition or event. Sometimes proximal risk factors cause or shape an event. For example, an intensely stressful life experience, such as a divorce or loss of a job, is a proximal risk factor for a suicide attempt.

This type of experience often occurs immediately prior to self-harm.

Proximal risk factors work directly, or almost directly, to cause a disease or symptom to take place. However, they do not act alone or come out of nowhere. Someone with a solid foundation is not likely to commit suicide after a divorce or job loss.

But someone who has experienced years of abuse during his childhood or constant rejection may commit suicide after these setbacks. While the proximal risk factor may be the final straw, they are usually built off of years of development, such as through distal risk factors.

What is a Distal Risk Factor?

In contrast to proximal risk factors, distal risk factors represent background characteristics that may put someone at risk for an event or condition at some point in his lifetime, but not immediately. In the case of borderline personality disorder, this can include intense childhood trauma or abuse. This background of trauma puts a person at higher risk of later being diagnosed with BPD. 

It is believed that distal risk factors are connected to BPD because of their link to learned behaviors. Someone who grew up in an abusive household learned from an early age that violence and aggression was an acceptable and useful tool to get what is desired. That can stay with that person throughout their lives and influence how they react to different situations or triggers.


While the exact cause of borderline personality disorder is still unknown, scientists and researchers have identified some common links among people with BPD. From early life traumas to emotional triggers, proximal and distal risk factors play a major role in how BPD shows itself. 

If you or someone you know may have BPD, contact a therapist to learn more about the condition and to better manage potential risk factors and symptoms. 

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