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The Trauma Stress Response: Letting Go of Self-Blame

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Like many survivors of abuse, going to the doctor or dentist can be a difficult experience.


The other day I had a dental appointment to have a couple of teeth worked on. I talked with all of my identites/parts ahead of time letting everyone know that adult Sharri was the only part that was allowed to go to the appointment and that I would be handling anything that may come up.

Over and over again I have used some of the techniques that I learned from Cathy Colyer’s book “Staying in the Room: Managing Medical and Dental Care When You Have DID” as well as learning to work with my system and giving parts lots of self care. I got through two knee replacements and I was all set to have my dental appointment go as well if not better than the last few times. I told the dentist ahead of time that if I needed him to stop I would put up a hand to let him know. He gave me a shot of novacaine and waited a few minutes. He mentioned that I might need another shot of novacaine and to let him know if I felt any discomfort,.

A short time after he started to drill I found that I still could feel what he was doing. I put my hand up to let him know. He immediately stopped drilling per our agreement. I told him that I could still feel a little pain. He gave me another dose to numb the area even more.

After waiting a few more minutes he went back to prepping the two teeth in the back for crowns. I felt so good that I had been able to use the hand signal to let him know that I needed him to stop.

Other than the vibration of the drill against my teeth and a little bit of shaking inside my head I no longer felt uncomfortable. I could feel that I was the only part sitting in the dentist chair and all the others were letting me go through this experience without feeling their presence.

Much of the time my dentist was working on my teeth he was sitting in his chair, but then he stood up to get to the teeth tucked in the back of my mouth. All of a sudden I felt the handle of the drill against the right side of my lip as he pressed down to get the leverage to do what he was doing with my two back teeth on the lower right side of my mouth. I knew that he wasn’t aware that he was laying the tool he was using against my lip and pushing down against my lip. Everything happened so fast. My teeth were now being pushed hard against the inside of my pulsing lip, but because of the intense pain I was feeling I got triggered and was not prepared for what happened next.

I literally froze. I couldn’t believe how my body was responding. I was unable to raise my hand or move a muscle at all. I couldn’t even say “mmhhh” to be able to communicate verbally to let him know that I needed him to stop. I panicked inside because what he was doing was severely hurting me. The pressure felt like he was using all of his weight to bring the instrument down against my lip to get to the part of my mouth in the back that he needed to. Inside of me I was catapulted back in time when I was being abused and the physical pain triggered something that was too familiar. My brain sensed danger and automatically went into freeze mode. Internally I was hoping and praying that what he was doing would be over soon and that I would be able to endure the pain I was experiencing. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to do anything about what was happening to me. What felt like an eternity could have been five minutes. I really don’t know. I was so relieved when he sat back down in his chair and moved the drill to a different spot and he lifted the drill off of my lip and mouth that was now throbbing. I still couldn't move or say anything even though the painful ordeal was over.

The dentist mentioned how well I was doing despite the fact that he knew from what I had told him when I first started going to his office that I didn’t like dental work done since I was a survivor of abuse. Little did he know that I wasn’t doing well even though I had been up until the point of pain. I then lost all sense of being able to follow through with the plan that we had come up with together with me raising my hand.

My thoughts started to turn into questions like, “Why couldn’t I say or do anything?” “What is wrong with me that I still have times like this where I literally can’t move or say or do anything about what is happening to me?”

I felt like I had failed especially after all the preparation my parts and I had done ahead of time and what we had planned for while in the dentist chair.

Abuse creates challenges and when our body feels something that is similar to our abuse and sets off a trigger our brain goes into survival mode and interferes with our normal ability to speak up or do what is needed to take care of ourselves. I realized as I thought about the neurology of a brain that has been through trauma that it was no more my fault for the way my brain sensed danger and had gone into survival mode than it was when I had been abused. I needed to realize that during my abuse my mind was doing what God designed my brain to do; survive.

Part of recovery is to know and believe that I am not to blame for my original trauma nor how my body and mind responds as a result when I have triggers. My abusers were hard enough on me. I didn’t need to be hard on myself by blaming myself or feeling guilt for what was happening as a result of being a survivor of abuse and the effects I still have. Comments such as, “I’m worthless,” “I’m stupid and a failure,” are tragic because they are untrue. Triggered stress responses are a normal part of abnormal traumatic experiences. Stress responses are something you experience; not who you are and I, like any other survivor, didn't do anything to cause our brain to go into the fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or fatigue reactions. When something causes a trigger it’s not our fault.

To help let go of self-blame it’s important to catch my critical thoughts and immediately remind myself, “This is something I live with. I didn’t cause this.” Keeping these statements simple and firm will help them to stick. I told my parts how proud I was of them and let them know that I still believe in "us" working together and it's not their fault that our body responded when our brain sensed danger. By replacing self blame with the truth and the facts, I will continue to believe in myself and my recovery and not let this set me back and acknowledge my inherent worth despite still having effects of trauma.


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Guest
Apr 12, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So happy that my book helped you! Survivors are never to be "blamed" for a dissociative response and you recovered without self-harming and able to refute old shame messages; that is a huge WIN!

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Sharri Burggraaf
Sharri Burggraaf
Apr 13, 2023
Replying to

I appreciate your validation of not getting into self harming or blaming myself for a dissociative response. Your book has been such an important part of my ability to stay in the room during dental and medical procedures so much better than previously. I'm grateful for your friendship and the resources you bring to the DID community.

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Guest
Apr 12, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I have trouble with dental and medical exams and it's not a failure to have the response that you did. What you said helps to know that I'm not alone and this can happen even when planning a strategy like you did with your dentist.

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