Everything You Need to Know About Tension, Stress, and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®)
I recently went through a medical event that was traumatizing. In some ways, the experience reminded me of having anaphylactic shock, which was another traumatic event that I went through a few years ago after I developed a food allergy. Side note: why doesn’t anyone talk about how traumatic anaphylactic shock is?!
I believe crying helps complete the stress cycle, so after I got home from the hospital I just sobbed deeply in my kitchen. I didn’t hold anything back. I realized then that I had some body-based trauma from these events that I couldn’t address with my usual cognitive-based strategies alone, and I needed another approach to address them. I've always been interested in somatic and body-based therapies, so I started doing research about various somatic practices. That’s when I discovered TRE® also known as tension, stress, and trauma releasing exercises.
I was intrigued to learn more about this practice because I had previously read about the benefits of shaking and also experienced its power as a coping strategy for myself and for the kids I work with. This is why one of the coping skills in my book Skills for Big Feeling is called Shake, Wiggle, Shake! Although, the neurogenic tremors experienced in TRE® are quite different!
In the book Waking the Tiger, the founder of Somatic Experiencing (SE), Peter Levine talks about shaking as a strategy that was used for healing over thousands of years in shamanic traditions. One of the ideas central to SE (Somatic Experiencing) is that the traumatic event itself doesn’t cause the symptoms but “it is the overwhelmed response to the perceived life threat that is causing an unbalanced nervous system.” (SEI, n.d.)
Levine studied animal behavior and in this book, talks about how many animals, like gazelles, often face life-threatening situations, but they don’t experience traumatic symptoms afterward. He states this is because they go through a trembling or shaking of their bodies to discharge the energy once the dangerous situation is over. These neurogenic tremors are an instinctual way of releasing the energy associated with the traumatic event. Levine says this is probably why these animals don’t experience the PTSD-type symptoms that humans do since the animals know how to let go of and release the trauma in their bodies.
One of the biggest learnings that occurred for me when I obtained my nursing degree was that our bodies are so deeply wise. And as humans we tend to suppress so much of that wisdom.
When we suppress or stop the shaking or tremoring, the body holds onto and stores that tension – which can then come out in other somatic symptoms like stomach problems, headaches, etc. It’s my belief that the body is incredible and really does strive towards homeostasis and to be a self-healing organism.
Shaking in Animals
I observe shaking behavior in my dog all the time. Last year when I took him to puppy kindergarten, the dog trainer told me that dogs shake for self-regulation and it's his way of regulating his emotions or taking a deep breath. She said it's good to tell him he's a “good boy” when he does this to help reinforce that behavior.
I followed the dog trainer's advice and now my dog often shakes. If he rings the bell and doesn’t get taken outside right away, he shakes. If he was sitting comfortably next to me on the couch, and I get up, he shakes. If he wants to play and I won’t play with him, he shakes. My dog is really good at emotional regulation!
My Experience with TRE®
After reading a bit on TRE® in some of the groups I am in with other therapists and doing some research about the technique, I decided I would learn it from a trained practitioner instead of trying to figure it out myself. I'm so glad that I found Kyla Ferguson to work with! I found her on the provider list on the TRE® site and chose to start learning the practice with her because I liked that she was also trained as a social worker.
Honestly, I was a little hesitant to try it but I am so glad that I did!
So I met with Kyla over Zoom and we did two sessions together before I started practicing TRE® on my own. Kyla has a calm, grounding, and warm presence and is a great TRE® practitioner to learn the technique with. I highly recommend meeting with her if you want to learn this technique.
I think this intervention is a total game-changer for self-care.
If I wasn’t so busy and stretched already in other areas of my life, I would immediately get trained and become a practitioner of TRE® myself, so I could teach this incredible technique to others. Trust me, the thought has crossed my mind! I can't believe that everyone isn't talking about this as an intervention tool yet. I found it to be an effective, quick, and deeply transformative practice!
The first time I experienced the neurogenic tremors it felt like waves of tension and stress were literally melting off and leaving my body. It’s hard to describe the experience in detail, and I'm struggling to find the right words but it was such a grounding, healing, and pleasant experience. The shaking felt like a really deep state of relaxation - something more intense than I've ever experienced before. I felt very present during the experience yet also profoundly relaxed at the same time. Afterward, I was extremely tired and couldn't stop yawning! I did actually take a nap.
Surprisingly, I also experienced some pain relief after my first practice. I have had pain and tightness in my left hip for many years and I did experience some relief after the TRE® practice. It wasn't cured or completely healed but the pain definitely feels better than it did before! I am curious about how that pain and discomfort will change with my commitment to this practice over time.
The second time I met with Kyla I was a little preoccupied with something so my experience with the neurogenic tremors was not exactly the same. At times I have trouble getting out of my head, so this was a good learning experience and reminder for me! It was still a really relaxing experience.
Doing TRE® On My Own
I did try to follow a practice from YouTube but I found it was too rushed and wasn't a good fit for me. So I did purchase this book by David Bertelli the founder of TRE®, as well as this video. After meeting with Kyla a couple of times, I found the combination of having this book and this video enough to guide me through the practice effectively. I do strongly recommend learning with a trained practitioner. Not everyone will have the same transformative and healing experience I had (although I hope that you do!)
For me, TRE® was deeply transformative and healing and I've continued the practice on my own. I can't always say that I stick with self-care practices but this has been so profound I have created time and space in my very busy schedule to continue to practice this on my own. I highly recommend if you are interested in addressing stress, tension, or trauma to keep an open mind and give this technique a try! For me, there is an essence of acceptance and letting go that happens with trusting the body.
And now I'm excited to share this guest blog post where Kyla will answer some questions you might have about TRE. I really hope you give it a try, as I think it has the potential to be life-changing for many people. I know that sounds extreme but this is an incredible, transformative, and healing practice. The world needs this now.
Learn About TRE® from Kyla Ferguson, LCSW, RYT
Kyla is a psychotherapist and yoga teacher based in western Massachusetts. She has worked with kids and adults of all abilities. With a background in dance and creative movement, her practice utilizes tools that help connect the body and mind. She is also a passionate proponent of resting practices and believes that they are a gateway to intuition and healing. She is certified in yoga at the 500 hour level and primarily teaches restorative yoga and yoga nidra. She is also trained in Body-Mind Centering, Trauma Release Exercises, and reiki. You can connect with her at Rest for Resilience. The following is a guest post/interview with Kyla where she answers your questions about trauma release exercises:
What is TRE®?
TRE® (Trauma Release Exercises) is a simple method of releasing tension and stress from the body. The practice involves moving through a set of seven exercises designed to activate the psoas muscles and initiate a shaking, or “tremoring,” through the whole body. This helps let go of acute or chronic stress and tension patterns, and helps to bring balance, relaxation, and freedom from stress. TRE® is appropriate for everyone and is equally useful for everyday stress as well as deeply held trauma.
I was introduced to TRE® when I was living in Portland, OR and fell in love with it right away. I felt such a release that was unlike anything I’d felt before. As a social worker, I knew that it was a powerful tool that could help so many people and decided to learn to teach it right away. I love guiding people through TRE® sessions because I see such quick and profound changes so quickly! It doesn’t take much tremoring to feel a very big and lasting change.
How does TRE® work?
Trauma Release Exercises (TRE®) works by tiring the muscles of the legs and the hips in order to induce a shaking, or tremoring, through the psoas muscle, which spans from the lower spine down through the pelvis. The psoas is often contracted during the fight-or-flight response, helping to protect ourselves by running, fighting, or curling up to protect the abdominal region. During a TRE® session, tremors often start in the legs, but can work through the whole body and will usually move to wherever there is tension that needs to be released. The tremors are involuntary, meaning that they happen completely on their own, but it is possible to override and stop them at any time.
In a TRE® session, I start by guiding people through the seven exercises. The exercises are designed to activate and tire out the muscles of the legs and hips. We move from the feet up to the legs, ending on the floor where the tremoring begins. I will usually allow beginners to tremor for 5-15 minutes, followed by some rest. We finish a session by talking about what happened and integrating any sensations or information.
What does TRE® feel like?
TRE® feels different for everyone, and there is no one right way to do the tremoring or release stress. I usually tell people that trauma and stress tend to leave the body in the same way that it entered. So, if someone experienced a single traumatic event like a car accident, there might be one, big release that helps the body let go of that stressful event. However, if someone experienced a lot of chronic, ongoing stress throughout childhood, the release may be a bit more gradual. For some people, the tremors are big movements in the muscles. For others, they are tiny contractions that feel like electrical frequencies moving through the body. TRE® is not painful—in fact, most people enjoy the sensations.
The only requirement in TRE® is relaxing and allowing the wisdom of the body to guide its unwinding. During TRE®, there is no mental processing of trauma or past stressful events. This is part of why I love TRE®- it allows the body to release without the mind needing to do anything at all! Many people report that their mind feels clear, calm, and relaxed during and after tremoring.
Throughout a session, I guide people to continually notice what is happening here and now. The body does not remember the events of stressful experiences like the mind does; it only remembers the feeling. So, as the tremoring happens, the mind can watch as a witness and allow the body to relax and unwind.
After TRE®, some people feel more energized. Others need a nap. Some people feel effects immediately during or after session, and others might not notice effects for a day or two. There is really no one size fits all!
What is the science of TRE®?
Tremoring can help to balance the nervous system after stress. When get stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the aspect of the nervous system that helps us to most safely navigate situations that are perceived as unsafe. The sympathetic nervous system was designed through evolution to help us move through temporary stressful situations in order to stay alive. Depending on the situation, we may move into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
As humans, we have all felt the physiological effects of stress in our bodies: butterflies in the stomach, tightness in our chest, clammy hands. When we get scared, our voice may tremble or our hands or knees may shake. This is a stress response—and it is the body’s effort to release some of that stress.
Animals tend to shake off after a stressful event. Dogs do this all the time. In the wild, if a gazelle was chased and came to being eaten, she would shake off once she came to safety. This is a physiological response to allow the body to release tension that was built up in order to withstand the stressful event.
Humans have been socialized to quiet and suppress some of these impulses. If your boss scolds you at work, it is usually not appropriate or accepted to shake, yell, or discharge that stress in any obvious way. Any time a fight or flight response is suppressed, it becomes stored as tension in the body.
When we don’t know why we were are feeling sore, or tight, or irritable, often it is due to these underlying and unconscious patterns of holding onto stress. If stress is held in the body for a long time, we may feel it as pain, insomnia, autoimmune disease, or many other manifestations.
By releasing tension, the parasympathetic or rest and digest aspect of the nervous system is activated, and the sympathetic nervous system responses can be let go of. This brings the body back into homeostasis, where deep rest becomes possible. Releasing stress is so important for regaining and maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health. When the body feels safe, it can rest, allowing healing to begin.
Where did TRE® originate?
TRE® was developed by David Berceli, a trauma expert who worked around the globe with trauma survivors and witnessed similar patterns in the bodies of the people he was working with. He has used this technique to help people recover from natural disasters, war, and other major traumatic events. There has been research showing that TRE® can be helpful for people with PTSD, multiple sclerosis, restless leg syndrome, as well as the general population.
Since the development of TRE®, it has been more and more widely used to help release the natural stress of everyday life.
How does TRE® help regulate our emotions?
One of the most important tools I teach is self-regulation in TRE®. Self-regulation is the ability to stay with emotions and experiences as they arise without getting overwhelmed. I stay with people closely while they are tremoring and help them to stay in the present moment. As a TRE® practitioner, yoga instructor, and therapist, I have an array of tools that can help people to stay grounded during a difficult experience, such as using breath, body awareness, or imagination. TRE® is only effective when done while the body is in a relatively calm, relaxed state. The tremors gently unwind the stored trauma. However, if the body and mind is not in a place to release, it can be possible to overstimulate the nervous system and activate a trauma response.
It's most important to remember that our nervous systems are deeply intelligent and always working for us. There are no wrong nervous system responses—there are just patterns that over time can become maladaptive if not released.
Who can practice TRE®?
TRE® is a great tool for kids as well as adults! The exercises are very adaptable and can accommodate all abilities. TRE is generally appropriate for kids who are about 7 or older. Children actually tend to shake more easily than adults, because they haven’t necessarily learned the social rules that may cause inhibition of shaking impulses. TRE can teach kids healthy ways to adapt and recover from stress and foster healthy attachment when done with a caregiver or therapist.
As a psychotherapist, I like to use TRE® in tandem with talk therapy, though this is not necessary. For some people, the physical release is really all that is needed to restore health and wellbeing. In fact, for some people with a lot of trauma, such as veterans, it is recommended to watch TV or do something else to occupy the mind while tremoring, in order to help the body stay as relaxed as possible.
How can I learn TRE®?
I always recommend starting by learning the exercises from a trained practitioner like myself. However, the original purpose of the technique was so that individuals could have an accessible, at-home tool to release stress and can be integrated into a daily or weekly routine.
Generally, 1-3 sessions with a practitioner are enough to learn the practice and feel confident to safely engage with the tremors on your own. Sometimes ongoing support is very helpful and allows a deepening of the tremoring and release process over time. It is really very individual!
For any specific questions about TRE®, feel free to email Kyla at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in learning more about TRE®, visit Trauma Prevention for resources and information about the practice. If you’d like to book a session with Kyla, visit my website Rest for Resilence.
TRE® has helped so many people, I hope you try it! Here’s to your health.
Berceli, D. (2015). Shake it off naturally.
Berceli, D. (2004). Trauma Releasing Exercises Step By Step Video Instruction and Demonstration.
Levine, P. A., & Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the tiger: healing trauma: the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.
Somatic Experiencing International (n.d.) About Us. https://traumahealing.org/about/
Trauma Prevention (n.d.). Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises. https://traumaprevention.com