I have been doing Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) on and off since the beginning of 2012. TRE operates on the basis that the body, if allowed to, will naturally shake off the tonic immobility (freeze) response, in the form of tremors. The body will shake involuntarily for however long it needs to and this will usually be followed by deep shuddering breaths and a return to homeostasis (relaxation). Wild animals shake all the time, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t survive for very long. They would become hypervigilant, constantly responding to perceived, rather than real danger, which eventually exhausts their systems. This hypervigilance, a symptom also present in traumatised humans, makes them vulnerable to real danger because their responsiveness is not as sharp or quick as it could be if they were well rested and more able to recognise the signs of true and present danger.
Human animals have become so far removed from their instincts and wilder nature that if they were to start shaking and tremoring, some might panic and think something is horribly wrong and others might think it’s weird and frightening. Here in Ireland, when people go into shock, they’re often told to eat something sweet to help calm the shaking that naturally occurs. So we repress the shaking out of ignorance, lack of knowledge or because we don’t want to feel embarrassed or shamed by others who don’t understand what’s happening, which is why education is so desperately needed about how our bodies, brains and minds respond to stress and how we can release that stress so it doesn’t accumulate and cause illness. I don't think there is a human alive who hasn't been traumatised so it is crucial that trauma is normalised.
As with any modality you need to proceed safely and gently and TRE is no different. In fact, in my experience TRE is even more powerful than other modalities I’ve tried. What I mean by that is that it can melt those frozen parts of us too/very quickly and we can subsequently feel overwhelmed and very agitated. This might happen after you’ve completed the exercises, not necessarily during, which is why it’s important to pace yourself and preferably find someone who you can co-regulate with.
If you think of every time you’ve been overwhelmed or received a shock over your lifetime and you haven’t released those experiences from your nervous system, they build up, and up, and up, they’re like a volcano waiting to explode. The fuller our barrels are, the more overwhelm we can experience when we start to empty those barrels. In our very understandable rush to feel better and get rid of our pain once and for all, we can go hell bent for leather, which only ever backfires.
Recovering from trauma can’t be done alone, it is absolutely crucial to have some support for our journey. The same is true for life, we are an interdependent species, we need each other and we are trying to pretend otherwise which is not working! Most of us, worldwide, live in cultures that value and admire independence, self reliance and going it alone over being supposedly ‘too’ needy. It is probably fair to say that this point of view is more common in so-called ‘developed’ counties. You have to wonder about the standards we measure that development, sometimes I think it’s purely economical. The fact that the term needy even exists is so telling.
I listened to an excellent webinar by Bonnie Badenoch recently and she talked about the myth of self regulation. What she said really resonated with me. Most of us have come to believe that needing others makes us weak, that the goal is to be able to do everything by ourselves. But I truly believe that we weren’t meant to go it alone, just look at a little baby and how they thrive when their care giver is attuned and mirrors them or an infant that is abused or neglected and left to “self soothe”. There is some difference between the two and how their lives pan out.
The fact is, if we weren’t soothed when we were young, it is extremely difficult later in life to learn how to relax and calm ourselves, though not impossible. When we can calm ourselves as adults, it’s because we have an inner community that we can draw upon according to Bonnie Badenoch and I agree wholeheartedly. So, even though on the outside it looks like we’re ‘self regulating’, we’re still co-regulating because we’re drawing on internal resources that were shared and given with love by others. We internalise everything, the good and the bad. The care and warmth we receive stays with us, as does the neglect and abuse, until we work through it and transform it.
Sadly, some people don’t even have one warm and nurturing person that they can call upon, but maybe they have something else for the time being, such as a pet, nature etc. What is essential though, is reaching out and finding someone who is safe and nurturing, I don’t think there’s any substitute for other loving human beings in our life. I think everyone deserves and needs to have at least one person in their lifetime who provides them with warmth, validation and safety.
A practice that I’ve found extremely helpful is pendulation. The practice is from somatic experiencing, which was developed by Peter Levine. When we swing our attention back and forth between tension and relaxation for example, we are pendulating between the two, which helps us stay with the difficult sensations a bit longer without becoming overwhelmed. I often do the constructive rest pose (which is from yoga and very similar to the position in TRE at the end of the exercises) and if I notice my legs starting to tremor, much more gently than if I had done TRE, I know my body is releasing some stress. To help with any possible overwhelm and to help co-regulate my system, I scan my body to find a place of relaxation or a place that feels neutral and swing my attention back and forth between the shaking and the neutral/relaxed place which works really well. I also plant my feet firmly on the ground so even though my body might be shaking, I’m not on ‘shaky ground’. I push my feet firmly into the floor as many times as I need to in order to ground myself and feel more regulated.