Shaking for Healing: What are Trauma and Tension Release Exercises?

Trauma-release exercises (TRE) are innovative, body-based practices for people with anxiety, trauma, or PTSD. The theoretical basis for TRE is that stress and trauma build up and become stored in the body. Lack of tension release can cause dysregulated nervous systems, often resulting in conflict, aggression, stress, and other negative side-effects.

Shaking is the body’s natural reaction to stress or trauma, and people often experience this reaction after a car crash, fearful experience, or accident. While it is often seen as a negative response, researchers in the field of trauma and therapeutic bodywork state that this response is potentially therapeutic.

The Development of TRE

Trauma release exercise techniques were formulated in the 1990s by Dr. David Berceli, a highly respected member of the international field of trauma treatment and intervention. It is based on foundational research documenting the way stress, tension, and trauma are both psychological and physical.

Dr. Berceli has a background in both psychotherapy and therapeutic bodywork, which allowed him to combine knowledge from both fields to develop a sequence of seven simple exercises designed to activate the body’s natural urge to shake as a way of releasing stress. 

The past 20 years have seen great advancement in the understanding of how trauma and stress affect the body. A leading researcher in trauma intervention, Bessel van der Kolk, explains how, “trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies… In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” TRE offers a way to safely build awareness of such physical sensations in a controlled, self-regulated manner.

How does TRE Work?

TRE is a series of seven accessible stretches and movements starting at the base of the body and moving upwards. The muscles of the lower body, starting at the feet and moving through the calves, quadriceps, abductors and hamstrings to the psoas, are stretched and activated to cause the legs to shake a little.1

When the tremor mechanism has been activated, a gentle shaking begins in the core of the body, travels up the spine, and releases tension as it travels to the neck. You lie on the floor, and as the sensations move through your body, the shaking can cause an emotional and physical release of tension, stress, and trauma, which, with the support of a trained professional, can be self-regulated.2 Regular TRE training allows one to control the intensity of feelings and regulate how much stress is released at a time to mitigate the feeling of being overwhelmed. 

Resting after the exercises is an important part of the process because it allows the body and mind to settle and integrate emotions as they occur. Through the exercises and settling, the brain can establish new neural pathways and settle the central nervous system. Homeostasis is re-introduced to the body, bringing relaxation and an opportunity to engage in talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy or trauma therapy to address other symptoms or areas for development.

Once a client is familiar with the exercises, a trained professional will generally recommend that they repeat the process for two or three sessions per week, with each lasting between ten and fifteen minutes or possibly longer to account for the rest period. It is important to practice the exercises in a safe, comforting, and relaxing environment. A stressful, unpredictable, or emotionally unsafe environment is not conducive to this process.

The psoas muscle is a key part of the process. Located at the base of the spine, it connects the legs, pelvis, and trunk of the body. The psoas muscle is considered the fight-or-flight muscle and is constricted when we experience something that we perceive as threatening, shocking, or traumatic. This locks in tension to the body, and chronic contraction of the psoas causes the nervous system to be on high alert. This survival mechanism has been key to overcoming danger and threat throughout human history. However, in extreme cases such as abuse, the stress response is repeatedly activated and the body can remain trapped in a state of heightened arousal that feels like the fight-or-flight response. 

Understanding the Science of TRE

TRE stretches activate central pattern generators, which are networks of neurons located in the gray matter of the spinal cord. These generators are responsible for the shaking – referred to as the tremor mechanism – moving up the spine to the brain. Once the tremor mechanism is transported to the brain, it enters the intrinsic connectivity network, which is involved in the communication of how to deal with the shaking sensation. At this point, the information enters what is referred to as the switch, which determines whether the tremor mechanism should be transferred to the thinking mode or stay in the rest mode. If the information is passed to the thinking mode – also referred to as the central executive network – the body will act on the information.1 Otherwise, the rest mode – also referred to as the default mode network – will connect the information to a past experience or reflection. 

The transcortical loop assists in this process. By repeating the exercises and activating the tremor mechanism, this entire process is continually activated and re-organizational behavior emerges, which lowers stress and tension and returns the body and nervous system to a healthy baseline. 

While it may appear disconcerting at first, the tremor mechanism is a natural and healthy process. With the support of a trained professional, it can bring the body back into the natural balance it seeks. The tremor mechanism can be observed in all mammals and humans as a natural and organic way of reducing the charge of stress hormones and unhealthy chemical build-up.

TRE can be a powerful tool for overcoming the physical effects of traumatic stress, which some survivors are acutely aware of as they impact daily life. Trauma can take a tremendous toll on your physical and mental health, but it’s important to remember you’re not alone. Whatever your experience, there is hope of regaining a sense of safety in your own body.


[1]  Berceli, D. (2008) The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process: Transcend Your Toughest Times. Vancouver: Namaste Pub.

[2] Berceli, D. (2015). Shake it off naturally: Reduce stress, anxiety, and tension with (Tre). CreateSpace.

[3] van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York, Penguin Books.

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