How the Body Holds Trauma & Stress – & How to Release It

by | Oct 27, 2019

When you’re an adult who’s stressed, you can articulate it. You have the language and experience to do so. For kids, it often gets expressed only with behavior.

Sometimes that looks like defiance, acting out, causing trouble; other times, as withdrawal or even varieties of self-harm. Chronic anxiety, trauma, and other negative states are typically expressed in this way, as well. What looks like “bad kid” or “troubled kid” behavior is more often a show of inner pressure or pain.

Yet even when we’re aware of this, the usual response is to come at the issue cognitively. After all, we understand our emotional experience through conscious thought.

But inner struggle is just as much a physical experience, particularly trauma. In fact, says noted PTSD researcher Dr. Bessel van der Kolk,

“Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition…. It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place.” That reset begins in the deep recesses­ of the brain with its most primitive structures, regions that, he says, no cognitive therapy can access. “It’s not something you can talk yourself out of.”

“The single most important issue for traumatized people,” he adds, “is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.” And this is exactly why body-based therapies for addressing trauma and other sources of chronic stress are needed to generate healing.

Trapped Tension

woman squatting face in handsThink for a moment about how your body responds when you’re scared or nervous or perceive a threat. Your muscles and fascia (connective tissue) tighten up. Your heart rate goes up. Your breath quickens and shallows. You physically pull inward. This physical tension is the “freeze” before the biologically-driven choice of fight or flight.

“All the body knows to protect itself is to contract,” says trauma expert Dr. David Berceli. “The prefrontal cortex – especially the part involving logic – disconnects under stress. The instinctive parts of the brain – the stem and limbic system – get faster.”

When this happens over and over again – as through traumatic events or ongoing stress – brain and body start to accept this as the new normal. The tension remains trapped.

“But from an evolutionary standpoint,” says Berceli, “it isn’t efficient for the body to evolve with a natural contraction mechanism without also having evolved with a natural release mechanism.”

Restoring Relaxation

group TRE practiceThis simple fact is what led Berceli to develop his innovative method of healing trauma, PTSD, and chronic stress, Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises, or TRE for short.

If you’ve ever noticed an animal shake itself all over after a burst of intense activity, you’ve seen this mechanism in action. You may have even noticed yourself unconsciously shaking your limbs after a particularly tense situation is through.

This genetically encoded mechanism for releasing stress is called neurogenic tremoring. It’s the same response as fidgeting or shaking when nervous or scared. It’s a way to discharge excess energy.

“All the body knows how to do,” Berceli explains, “is to move structure to calm down.”

TRE provides a deliberate way of tapping into this natural tremoring mechanism to “help the brain stop acting in a traumatized way.” The tremors signal the brain to relax. It’s yoga-like movements slightly stretch and fatigue the body, allowing it to activate that mechanism more easily.

The body can let go of stress and return to a state of relaxation.

Integrating TRE

Like Yoga Calm, TRE is readily adaptable. It can be done individually or in groups; in a moment of crisis or as a regular practice supporting overall resilience.

Here, you can see Berceli leading a group of 300 students in a South African school:

Students don’t even necessarily need to be told what the exercises are or what they’re for, says Berceli. “It can even be treated like a game,” without ever invoking concepts of trauma or stress. The tremoring is the thing.

“Children are much more available to it than adults,” he says. “Adults try to control it. They overthink it. Kids are more open. They’ll laugh. They don’t control it a lot.”

Yet TRE can benefit adults, as well, including teachers, whose own self-regulation is so important. “Kids mirror their teachers,” says Berceli. “Is the teacher stressed? Then the class is stressed, too. Students regulate toward the leader.”

TRE is portable, too. The exercises can be done outside of the classroom or clinic, independently from any teacher or counselor or therapist.

“Neurogenic tremoring is genetically encoded in every person,” Berceli says. “It’s there for specific reasons. Everyone has a right to know it’s there and how to use it.”


Ready to learn more about TRE for yourself, your kids, or your work with kids? Then join us for our next LIVE webinar with Dr. Berceli, “Our Brain’s Response to Stress and Trauma,” on November 2, 10am to 11am Pacific time.

You also have the opportunity to meet Dr. Berceli and learn TRE directly from him and Lynea during our next live TRE training, January 31 – February 2, 2020. We hope you join us for what is sure to be an amazing event! A certificate and CEUs are available. The course also fulfills requirements toward becoming a certified TRE provider. Register now.

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