I know, I know: I’m slow on the blogging front, but it’s been a busy year, in which I’ve moved house, spent over a month in Germany, travelled to Australia, and met Janet Street-Porter (not in that order). As a result I’ve entirely neglected to mention that I achieved my Advanced Rolfer status last year and also qualified as a Certified TRE® Provider.
This last is the one I want to tell you about today.
TRE® stands for Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises and it’s a system – with an accompanying body of clinical work and theory – that’s made an enormous difference to my understanding and practice of Rolfing over the last few years, as well as to my own well-being. It’s something I now offer chiefly as an adjunct to the Rolfing ten series, but also as a standalone therapy for those who want it.
TRE is a system of short exercises devised by the U.S. humanitarian worker and therapist, Dr David Berceli, that teaches people how to activate their body’s natural shaking – or tremoring – response in order to release long-held patterns of muscular tension that may be result of physical and emotional stress. It’s a pain-free and remarkably powerful way to reduce tension deep within the body, and it initiates a longer-term process of re-regulation of the body’s responses to stress and trauma. Unlike Rolfing, there’s also no undressing required, and it can also be a good first step for people who find this challenging.
The writer and clinician, Bessel van der Kolk, has written that ‘dissociation is the essence of trauma’. It is the ‘too-muchness’ of trauma, or of chronic stress, that defeats our ability to stay with and process a traumatic experience, and which can make it impossible to return to normal after the activation – arousal or shutdown – of the nervous system by the deepest, unconscious part of the brain. The theory behind TRE is that the body’s ability to shake is our natural response to stress, and that it helps the body to re-normalise after any experience that has triggered the body’s unconscious defensive responses: either the fight/flight response (associated with adrenalin), or the freeze/collapse/dissociative response (associated with the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve). Animals shake naturally, and so do children (although traumatic experience and parental cues can inhibit this), but as adults in our culture we tend to be less attuned to, or actively suppress, the shaking response. TRE helps us to rediscover our amazing and natural capacity for tremoring, and it helps reset the nervous system after being disrupted by stressful experiences – whether that’s something that happened yesterday, a long time ago; a single event, or a longer period of stress and upheaval. Allowing the body to tremor can help to renew bodily awareness in the places where fear, shock, or stress has blocked our capacity to experience physical sensations and – in effect – our own physical reality.
In addition to the theory, the TRE community is committed to developing a compelling clinical and research base to demonstrate its effectiveness.
TRE can be a powerful and sometimes an emotional experience, and it’s why it’s worth learning the exercises initially with an experienced therapist. It’s important to say a couple of things here. Within the TRE community, we focus on the work that can be done to address trauma at the level of the body, believing, as Bessel van der Kolk says, that ‘the body keeps the score’. Aside from our initial interview and case history, there’s no requirement or necessity to talk about the specifics of your past experiences. My role as a therapist is to keep you safe, to keep you feeling wholly present and in control of the shaking process, and to listen. Please keep in mind, though, that it can be a good idea to be supported by a trained psychotherapist as you embark on the process of recovering from trauma, especially those that relate to sexual abuse and early life abuse.
Once you feel comfortable with shaking, the process and the mechanism is yours to take away and practise as often you like, and for many of my Rolfing clients, TRE becomes a really helpful tool to develop and maintain the Rolfing work.
I came to shaking – or rather, shaking found me – during the period before and then during my Rolfing training. As I’ve written elsewhere, I went through a very stressful – mostly work-related – period towards the end of my twenties and early thirties, and experienced chronic fatigue and a host of physical symptoms alongside severe anxiety and depression. I began to notice a predictable trembling in my chest whenever I woke up, and initially put it down to stress and anxiety, even going so far as to have various tests for my heart health. I’m keen to stress that the spontaneous shaking I experienced was never remotely painful, but being anxious by disposition I assumed the worst, and got myself checked out. Over time, and particularly as my Rolfing training progressed, I began to observe this strange, unexplained phenomenon more dispassionately, and noticed that the tremoring started to move through my body, and also to resolve, more as though something was being worked out and processed, that I felt incredibly relaxed afterwards, and that a noticeable shift in my body – towards greater suppleness and flexibility – was taking place. I also became aware of a flickering, vibrational quality in certain parts of my body while meditating, alongside experiencing spontaneous osteopathic-style ‘corrections’ in my spine, neck, and sacrum. There was no doubt in my mind that, while Rolfing was catalysing this change, the mysterious shaking was a part of it too, but I still had no name for what was happening.
A little bit of internet research later, I discovered the UK TRE community, and attended a workshop in London. It was a revelation. I discovered that the tremoring that I had experienced spontaneously was not only natural, but therapeutic, creating a notable reduction in my background sense of anxiety, improved sleep, and reduced tension especially around the hips, legs, and psoas (the psoas is a pair of deep muscles – often thought of as hip flexors – that particularly respond to states of stress, fear, and shock). I learned moreover that I could initiate and creatively steer a process that nevertheless has an involuntary quality, and trust my body’s responses.
TRE (like Rolfing) defies easy description. I’m aware that words like ‘shaking’ are potentially off-putting to anyone who doesn’t want to do anything overly weird, esoteric, or disinhibited. I’m keen to stress that TRE is not like that: it’s a natural, if neglected physiological response that most of my clients find they recognise from other experiences in their lives, such as the experience of noticing a leg shaking from excessive exercise, trembling after childbirth or an operation, or simply feeling ‘shaky’ after tripping over in the street. It can be practised safely by almost anyone, at any age, with the exception of people who are pregnant and in those with some heart or other serious conditions.
For most people, the reality of learning to practise TRE is that we take about 75 minutes to work through a series of short movement exercises that culminates in getting some shaking going, usually while lying down. What does that look like? For most people, it starts out as a gentle, rolling tremoring of the muscle fibres of the thighs and pelvis that is certainly curious, but always comfortable and controllable (controllable in the sense that you can bring it to an end any time you like). This, very fine-grained kind of tremoring, deep in the muscle fibres, is barely visible to another person. Over time, and for some people straight away, the shaking response may develop into other movements and parts of the body: rocking over the spine, for example, or movements in the arms, shoulders, abdomen, diaphragm, and head and neck. It’s possible, over time, to get creative with shaking: working with a TRE Provider or by yourself to experiment with how your body responds to shaking in a different position, for example. Similarly, there are plenty of possible adaptations for people who may find standing in a certain position or lying down uncomfortable.
I like to incorporate TRE into my Rolfing treatments with some of my clients, where I think it can be helpful, and I’ve found that it can be really effective at addressing whole-body tone before getting into the specifics. You can read a testimonial by my client Jane [name changed] here.
To ask more questions or to book an appointment with Naomi, click here.