What is trauma? Generally speaking, trauma is something that we experience which exceeds our coping abilities and mechanisms. That means that whatever it is, we cannot process it. We cannot comprehend it. We cannot assign it a unified story capturing its meaning. Trauma refuses to be coherent. Like missing puzzle pieces we hold onto the pieces of what happened without being able to fit them together. The hope is that we can somehow make sense of shattered remnants and work them into a unified narrative that provides some kind of meaning that works for us.
One form of treatment for trauma is talk-therapy. The hope is that a therapist or psychologist can help a client make sense and reconcile what happened in a meaningful way. The assumption is that when this happens that the trauma will be resolved. Let’s call this a top-down approach because the goal is to bring peace and resolution to the mind and brain which may result in cascading peace and calm to the body.
But also some therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists etc have been working on a bottom up approach. In this book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk talks about ways to put focus on releasing the stress of trauma from the body. The benefit is that a trauma sufferer can find some relief from the tension of trauma in his or her body while he/she is still trying to find meaning in what happen. The bottom up approach does not attempt to resolve the trauma in the trauma sufferer’s mind, but it does help to relieve the stress of the trauma(s), sort of like a pressure relief valve. In his book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine talks about how animals shake off the effects of an attack or of being chased by shaking their bodies. Their bodies simply start shaking involuntarily until the tension of the threat or traumatic event is released. The suggestion by both Van Der Kolk and Levine is that trauma gets registered and stuck in the body until the trauma can be released. Even if a person is able to mentally/emotionally/spiritually able to resolve the trauma event(s) in their mind, the body may still hold the memory of the physical impact upon them. And shaking is a natural way to release traumatic and stressful tension.
Another trauma practitioner, Dr. David Berceli, has taken this approach a step farther. Dr. Berceli has worked internationally is areas afflicted by war, earthquakes etc. He wanted to find a way to help people find relieve from the residual tension residing in their bodies after these kinds of horrific events. So he developed what we now know as TRE® which stands for Trauma & Tension Release Exercises. TRE® is a set of exercises designed to over-tax the muscles in the lower limbs and trunk, but most specifically, the Psoas muscle group. The Psoas muscles are the only muscles that connect your lower back and pelvis to your legs. In fact, when a person curls up in a fetal position it is the Psoas muscles that are contracting. This is a defensive position these muscles seem to instinctually perform. Once the Psoas muscles are sufficiently maxed out by the exercises, the patient lays on the floor and by lifting his/her knees off the floor and begins to shake involuntarily. This a very high level explanation that does not do TRE® justice. But there are many You-Tubes you can watch about this and you can read Dr. Berceli’s books. But the point is that when a person starts shaking involuntarily, the person’s nervous system releasing tension. This is a powerful way to release loads of tension. There are also some yoga positions that can have the same effect but do not seem to include the final shaking.
The advantage of the bottom up approach is that people suffering from stress or trauma can release the physical and nervous tension of the trauma. The advantage is that people can calm their nerves and release tension from their muscles whether or not the person is ever able to make sense of what happened. At least the body can find some relief from the physical stress of it. A trauma release exercise like TRE® may be helpful for law enforcement , military or fire personal, 911 dispatchers, EMTs, first responders, hospice workers, PTSD sufferers, teachers, persons that have suffered abuse of all kinds etc. or anybody who has experienced trauma and/or significant stress.