A Guide To: TRE – Trauma Release Exercise

Just as animals shake off tension after a nervous showdown, we humans need some good vibrations to help rid ourselves of pent-up emotions and stress. TRE is an easy-to-learn but life-changing modality that you can practice at home after just a few lessons.
10 Mar 2021
Words by: Kate Whitehead

I suffered from terrible migraines for most of my adult life. They happened fairly regularly – once or twice a month – and could get bad enough that I’d throw up and be confined to a dark room, though migraine medication certainly helped a lot. I never went anywhere without the meds, and although I didn’t like being dependent, I was certainly grateful for them. And then two years ago something happened which changed all that. I was introduced to TRE, or tension and trauma releasing exercises.

I was completing my Master’s degree in Counselling at the time and was invited to The Cabin, a rehab clinic in Chiang Mai, to write a story about a trauma-informed women’s addiction programme. When the PR suggested a TRE session, I have to admit, I really wasn’t keen. I’d never heard of TRE and was a little put off by the word “trauma”. But the PR was persistent, so I reluctantly agreed to a session with the centre’s TRE provider.

I went into that session knowing nothing about it. I didn’t even know that “shaking” was involved, so I was pretty surprised by it all, but I loved it and slept like a baby that night. As soon as I returned to Hong Kong, I sought out a provider and had four more sessions and was then able to practise at home, something that I continue to do two or three times a week. Within a couple of months, the migraines reduced in frequency and intensity, and six months on they had ceased. I was such a fan, that I decided to be trained to be a TRE provider and now offer sessions at Clarke Clinic in Central and Balance Health. I’m also on the TRE international board of directors.

A woman in black clothing bending forward with hands on the floor
Photograph by Cottonbro Studio

What is TRE?

TRE is a series of seven simple exercises that help the body release deep muscular patterns of stress or tension. These exercises evoke a muscular shaking process in the body. When this shaking mechanism, known as a neurogenic tremor, is activated in a safe, controlled environment, the body is encouraged to return to a state of natural balance.

The exercises were developed by David Berceli, a trained social worker and trauma specialist who spent many years working in high conflict areas. He spent much time in bomb shelters and noticed that everyone made the same involuntary response when bombs began falling – they put their hands over their head and curled into a fetal position.

In the animal kingdom, animals shake instinctively to release tension after a life-threatening event, but adult humans are able to override this voluntary mechanism. Berceli believes that adults keep from shaking for fear of looking weak or vulnerable.

The psoas muscles, the body’s deepest core muscles, are the primary connectors between your torso and your legs. They affect your posture and help stabilise your spine. They are where we often store physical, emotional and mental stress in our bodies.

When we are faced with a frightening situation, we go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode – we prepare to either fight the enemy, run away or freeze out of fear or the hope we’ll be spared. As the body tenses to prepare for any one of these strategies, hormones are released, our posture changes and so does our breathing. After the danger – or perceived danger – has passed, often that tension is not used up and stays in the body. And we keep locked in the same patterns. In my case, stressful situations – often tight editorial deadlines – led me to hunch up my shoulders, leading to chronic tension in my neck and triggering migraines.

Activating the tremor reflex with TRE is a natural way of resetting our body. TRE is excellent at helping people with chronic pain and muscular tension – I can certainly attest to that. The connective tissue in the body becomes looser, allowing the body to naturally align and better regulate.

The mind and body are very closely connected – when our body is tense, we often have anxious thoughts. And it works the other way as well – anxious thinking can often lead us to hold tension in our body, for many people in either their neck, lower back or stomach. When we are able to release the tension in the body, it can lead to less worry and anxiety, and greater emotional resiliency. Many people also report feeling calmer, more peaceful and having increased flexibility.

A topless woman wearing white pants sitting on a grey armchair
Photograph by Ron Lach

What is TRE good for?

TRE is also very good for those with insomnia, which is often a signal that stress, anxiety and tension are preventing the body’s sleep mechanism from properly activating. The deep muscular relaxation that TRE elicits allows the body to activate the “rest and digest” relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system that allows the body to sleep.

TRE can also lead to emotional healing. Long after a traumatic event, the emotional pain and upsetting memories associated with that event remain in the body. Strong emotions stored in the body often lead to chronic pain or tension. Similarly, physical issues can impact the emotions – take the long-standing physical injury that leads a person to become anxious or depressed. The release of stress and muscle tension can also bring an emotional release. This release can bring up old negative emotions such as anger, fear or sadness, that you may have been trying to suppress. Working with a therapist, you will be encouraged to move through to a full emotional release, taking plenty of deep breaths to help the body release the stored negative energy.

Anyone who does the exercises will shake – I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t – and everyone’s shake is different, because everyone holds tension differently as a result of their different life experiences. TRE can be learned and practised by people of all ages and fitness levels – I have worked with the elderly, children and the disabled – but is not recommended if you are pregnant or have had recent abdominal surgery.

It is intended to be a self-help system. After five sessions with a TRE provider – either working one-on-one or in a group – most people are then able to practise on their own at home. Those who have experienced extreme trauma, have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have fragile mental health are advised to have private sessions.

Learn more about TRE and treatments at Balance Health here.