The body is an amazing piece of biotechnology. We are continuously rediscovering its wisdom. Whether from everyday stress, built-up chronic stress, or severe stress like that found in disaster zones, people everywhere in the world is living with tension. Constriction and compression.
What if there is a natural and safe way to release this from the body? And be free?
The Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) were created by David Berceli for just that purpose. This is a simple and powerful technique that people can use to release post-traumatic syndrome or use every day to build their resilience. David Berceli has been working around the world for the past 20 years in disaster, poverty, and war zones, teaching TRE and trauma relief workshops. He is an international expert in conflict resolution and trauma intervention. Thanks to David and all the NPOs which bring him on, even while human depravity is still happening, countless people are given a chance to release trauma from their bodies so that they have an opportunity for a different life.
The concept of shaking as a natural and appropriate response to feeling stress was demonstrated to David while living in Lebanon. He noticed inside the bomb shelters that the young children shook during, and even after, the bombings. The curiosity, as he called it, was that none of the adults did. We are probably familiar with other examples, such as shaking when we are nervous or perhaps after being in an accident. It is also seen in animals shaking after escaping near-death. This tremor mechanism is an autonomous response generated by the nervous system to discharge excessive energy and tension in the body and bring it back to homeostasis. Neurogenic tremors bring the body toward healing. Perhaps the advice, “shake it off” is not so bad after all.
What is TRE?
This series of exercises evokes an autonomic response in the body. The nervous system generates that tremor mechanism. It is not part of the conscious ego brain. Once evoked the person is now letting go of their conscious brain. They don’t even have to think about it, or do anything. It works – actually it works better – without consciousness.
Can conscious shaking evoke this response?
That is yogic shaking, tai chi shaking…where you shake the body consciously. You are supposed to do it until it evokes an autonomic response, until the body is shaking by itself. In that sense, it is the same thing. But standing there and shaking consciously is not going to work. It is an unconscious mechanism.
If you make the shaking happen, it is usually the muscles in the limbs that are doing it but that isn’t where the trauma is. Trauma is some core pattern of contractions. When people feel they are centred or safe, the core has started to release. That’s what this autonomic mechanism does: it travels through the core.
Why is the tremor mechanism not automatic?
It is in some circumstances. It should be automatic and we should be able to down-regulate as quickly as we up-regulate. There are theorists who guess that in our mammal evolutionary process, we haven’t evolved out of that yet. Not only do we do it, I am trying to demonstrate that we do it much more often than we think and it is not nearly as strange as people think it is. If you pay attention, you’ll see it all over the place.
But we pathologized it [tremoring] into something bad so we deliberately try to stop the tremors. Not only in our social structure we don’t like it but even in the field of medicine. Because they have not really understood what it is, they actually medicate it to stop it.
Even women after they birth children will often tremor uncontrollably, which is the completion of the birthing process. We don’t accept that in the medical field so we actually stop the woman from doing it. It’s quite interesting. I’ve worked with many women. They will lie there in tremors and their feet will go up like they are in stirrups and they can feel the pulsation of the birthing process.
What happens with kids and this tremor mechanism?
When a two-year-old falls, he cries. Kids that age haven’t learned to inhibit that yet. When kids are ten years old and they fall or hurt themselves, they’ve learned how not to cry.
We learn and we are trained how to inhibit pulsation, if you will, like the organic expression of sadness, fear, and anger. We learn to control it and the tremor mechanism is one of those things we have learned to control.
What I discovered is that generally from about five up to eleven, they evoke the tremors very easily. Even traumatized children. I think at that age, it is just pleasure and relaxation for the body. After 11, after they start to be more individualized, that’s when they start to have resistance, when they start to have control over their body and own lives. They start to resist letting go of control. It starts to be a little more complicated, up to about 65 or 70. Then after that, you get the older people who are more like “that’s okay. Let’s see what this is all about.” They come in and tremor beautifully. They love it
If you look at those two ends of the spectrum, it is just natural and there is no resistance. It is pleasurable. For those who have done it for a while, they now just do it for pleasure. It releases the diaphragm – they can breathe deeper. They feel relaxed and it feels like pleasure, which is different from “I’m releasing trauma.”
What is the difference between stress and trauma?
If you put stress at one end of the scale and trauma at the other end, it is a matter of degree. That’s all. We could be in the same situation and that degree could be different. It is not either trauma or stress. That does not exist.
Trauma is some core pattern of contractions.
Even through there is a stress-trauma spectrum, certainly there are some events that will traumatize everyone, like war.
That’s what I believe to be true. I believe every single time a person does get traumatized, it is a matter of degree of the trauma and what social support network they have. The shaking out mechanism is essential to help move the body faster or more effectively toward the direction of healing.
When you move the body it also helps the mind?
Absolutely. It is a neuro-physiological dialogue that goes on. It is really the body and the brain that together are creating the tremor response – to both start and stop the tremor response.
How has TRE helped with your own resilience?
The more I do it the more resilience I demonstrate. I still go back to war zones, poverty zones, disaster zones, and situations like that. It is easier to be there and it is easier to feel myself when I am getting frozen or dissociated.
When I come back home, it usually takes about five or six days of me being persistent on working on my own self and then it is gone. You can actually feel it’s gone. It does not exist anymore. There is no longer that charge. I feel centred. I feel safe. I feel now I can let go. What is feeling centred?
Now that is a curiosity and will be a future doctoral thesis.
All over the world, in all the cultures, people say that and so if we can pull that word out as a species, there must be some physiological thing that actually occurs that generates the concept of centre, and that we can feel it. I would love to know what that is.
There is something about being in the body. You feel safe. It’s not like you are living with a level of anxiety or startled underneath. The organism is just back to homeostasis and life is good.
What traumas get released?
I have had people come and say they want to work on their anger with their mother or their father or about their divorce but I tell them that I don’t know if that’s what your body wants to do right at this moment.
Here’s why. If you are holding anger about your divorce in your pelvis or your guts and it’s squeezed very tight, there could be 3000 reasons why you squeezed it tight before as well.
The body doesn’t care why you squeezed it tight; it only cares that it needs to get rid of it. The body truly lives in the present moment. It doesn’t have a past or future experience of itself and it only knows it is tight now. It doesn’t care about the reasons so all of the reasons can come out.
The body is really leading the session. Not the client, and not the clinician.
How is TRE empowering?
I always educate my clients and share what I see. I see what may be stuck, like your shoulder or your neck, and I will do release work while you tremor on the floor. The tremor mechanism is responding to the release. I help move that tremor mechanism through different parts of the body.
If I can see that you don’t flood, dissociate or become frozen in some way, then I would ask you to do the TRE three times a week for about one month. If you still have problems after that or if the stress is not gone or emotions start to surface, then we do another session but I won’t do another session until you do your own work.
We are self-healing. We can do it. Sometimes I think clinicians disempower clients from that. They make clients dependent on them. I try to empower my clients. We have to break both what psychotherapy has done to society and cultures and add a new element of self-empowerment and self-healing.
TRE OUT In the WORld
You are invited by NPOs. How did they first hear about your work?
Lots of NGOs know my work. In that international circuit, if something works, it really gets around fast.
Where are some of the places you have been with TRE?
Sichuan, China. In Japan, we spent about two weeks, just day after day going from one zone to another throughout the tsunami area. That was very fascinating. New Zealand. South Africa. I got invited to go to Turkey to work with refugees.
When do you go into these situations?
We are second-phase responders.
First-phase responders are for the bare necessities – food, water, and shelter.
The trauma really happens when all of that leaves, and they are left devastated. There are no more helpers and they still don’t have a house. That’s when depression starts to set in. Domestic violence starts to happen. They can’t earn any money. They have no income. Their jobs have been destroyed. The social structure has collapsed. I go into during that phase.
I work with the whole social structure. They need to rebuild from within, not just rebuild the building. They need to build family cohesion, social cohesion. You’ll see a lot of social violence after natural disasters. All the unresolved trauma gets expressed in domestic violence or social violence.
How open are the people?
They are very open to TRE because they are desperate. I’m lucky in that sense. [David laughs]
TRE teaches people how to help themselves, after the disaster and after I leave.
This is what I love to do – to help thousands of people at one time and to help them learn to help each other. After the tsunami in Japan, after the tremors, I had them sit up and talk to each other about how they felt and who in the room is their friend and how they can help each other.
For many Asian cultures, speaking of trauma outside of the family is taboo so this is fantastic.
That’s right. The tremor mechanism reduces even that social stigma of talking. They have a different reference, which is their body. Once they start talking, then you can build it into the next level. Even when they are talking about emotions, they are still talking about this experience, rather than about themselves. It makes talking about themselves a secondary issue and it makes it easier to do.
Where is TRE?
I have worked all over the world. TRE is in 35 countries, all independently trained programs. I go and support them. I go to a new country to help start a new program. I supervise the trainees and to make sure they are solid and strong enough to be trainers in their own countries.
You work with soldiers?
Through the military, in large groups, with maybe 150 soldiers in a room at one time.
It is interesting that the military is open to that.
Here’s the deal. In Washington DC TRE is not an approved method. They don’t advertise it or give permission for it. On the local level, at the bases, they have their own authority to do what they think is most helpful for their soldiers and they have a certain amount of money to do that. If we were looking to bring TRE to the entire military in the US, then it would have to be approved by Washington DC.
One place where it did change was in Austria. We had five military people come to my training. They loved it and they got it. Those five continued on to be certified, then they invited me to go back again and we worked with about 200 soldiers, who came from all over the country. I supervised these five military people while they taught it. It is now going to be taught throughout the whole Austrian military.
That’s how it grows. The reason it is spreading is because it works. Not because it’s been researched and proven. This is a wonderful testimonial really. I now have a $250,000 from the VA hospital in Arizona where I live to research how TRE works.
The military is big on budget and big on competition so if the Austrian military brings it in, then the Germans, then more and more militaries are likely to…
Yes, that’s right. They don’t trust outsiders. They trust insiders. It is the generals and colonels making the decision in the Austrian military and other generals and colonels will pick up on that. There is this chaplain and a TRE trainer in the German military who has been working so hard to get them to pay attention. When they read about this invitation by the Austrian military, the general called her up to ask about TRE.
It should be pointed out that David works with with the aggressors and the victims in a conflict situation. Healing must take place on both sides.