There Is No “Exercise” That Heals Trauma

“Without changing the somatic system – the underlying neurochemical platform – any change in behaviour is simply overriding through force of will.” – Kathy Kain, creator of Somatic Practice

This article started out as an answer to someone’s question in the Facebook group my wife, Irene Lyon, started, Healthy Nervous System Revolution. They wanted to know if we recommended TRE (Tremor Release Exercises) as a way to heal trauma.

I realized though, that my answer was about much more than why we do not recommend TRE – it’s about the nature of the most common kind of trauma we see in the industrialized world, and why treating it is not a simple matter of “releasing stress.” This answer focuses on TRE – what it might be good for, everything it is NOT good for, and why other approaches are generally far better for the kind of trauma most of us in the industrialized world have, but the same shortcomings can, I feel, be applied to anything at all that is considered a “technique” or “exercise.”

Techniques and exercises do not heal trauma. Relationship heals trauma. That relationship may well be therapeutic, and the practitioner may have all sorts of various techniques, exercises, and interventions at their disposal which will be useful when applied judiciously and in harmony with what is unfolding in the client, but it is not the techniques, or exercises themselves that heal anything – it is the safe container of the relationship which allows for the organic unfolding of the client’s unique system that is healing. That being said, some exercises are better than others.

Here is my answer to the question, “is TRE good for healing trauma”….

* * *
The answer to this question depends entirely on the nature of your trauma and the state of your nervous system. I think the best place to start is with words from the creator of TRE, David Berceli, on how he developed this approach…
“I was living in several countries in Africa & Mid East that were experiencing war and political violence. I noticed a pattern among all of us, that when we became anxious, frightened or traumatized, our bodies would begin to shake from fear. This shaking had a predictable pattern. It had a beginning, at the onset of violence; middle during the violence; and an end, the shaking would stop when the violence ceased and safety was restored. I recognized that the shaking was not a pathology of the fear response, as traditional medicine suggests, but rather it was a healthy mechanism of the nervous system trying to help the body reduce its fear, tension and anxiety. I developed a method to artificially evoke this shaking response in a safe and controlled environment. This allows the individual to complete the shaking response long after the stressor is over and reduce the still-existing excited charge of the nervous system.”

On the surface this seems totally valid and fine, and it is. IF we are simply talking about allowing a held Sympathetic (Fight/Flight) NS charge to dissipate.

What he is talking about is simple shock trauma – there is gunfire and explosions, a car crash, an assault on the senses of some kind that is sudden and big and overwhelming and there isn’t enough time or support or safety to allow our Fight/Flight survival responses to complete. TRE might very well be helpful at releasing that Sympathetic charge.

The thing is, simply discharging a held Sympathetic response does not even come close to addressing what is needed for the kind of trauma that is much more common in industrialized countries. In the “first world” a simple case of shock trauma is the least common type of trauma. I’ve had hundreds of clients through my door at this point and I’ve had exactly ONE case of simple shock trauma.

As hard as it may be to believe, in the “second” and “third” world countries it is much more common to have good, solid early wiring and attachment, to have baseline regulation, but to then be exposed to shock trauma. Of course there are many kinds of adversity all over the world, including abusive and mis-attuned parents wherever you go, but speaking in terms of broad social trends and cultural fields of consciousness, we generally see in the more “primitive” cultures that the attunement and care between parents and children early on is much more refined and robust than in industrialized countries. There isn’t the same kind of crazy hectic schedules and need to constantly work, caregivers are with their kids more because daycare is much less common, and family connection and harmony is, in general, more valued than making money and acquiring things.

*Note – I’m using quotes around “first”, “second”, “third”, and “primitive” because frankly, I despise using those terms at all. The so called “third” world is a hell of a lot more advanced than the “first” in many of the ways that actually make a being human. I’d rather spend a week with the Aboriginals in Australia or a South American tribe than with most Americans, and I consider those “primitive” people much more advanced than the consumer culture of western society in terms of consciousness. But I have to use those words so people know what I am talking about, just know it is with reluctance.

Unfortunately though there is more war and violence in the less industrialized countries – more things likely to produce simple shock trauma. This is the kind of environment that TRE was developed in – where it’s more likely that the individual’s systems were dealing with simple shock trauma on top of solid early wiring.

What is much more common in industrialized countries and cultures is complex trauma that has its roots in early/developmental trauma and chronic stress as well as surgical trauma, that then may or may not have various shock traumas on top of all that. And with this type of complex multi-layered trauma, which results in depression, anxiety, poor boundaries, lack of agency, phobias, autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, skin conditions, cancers, or ALL of the above – discharging a held Sympathetic response is literally the LAST thing we want to have happen.

What needs to happen first is relationship. The very foundation of all good trauma work (especially when it comes to early/developmental trauma) is building a solid relationship over time where the client can feel an actual felt sense of safety, usually for the first time ever. This is what Somatic Experiencing (SE) does at it’s best, and it’s what Kathy Kain’s work, Somatic Practice, excels at. These modalities, especially Somatic Practice, support everything that needs to happen as a foundation, before ANY sort of big activation/deactivation work (the kind of Sympathetic discharge TRE supports).

*Note – to be completely fair – many SE practitioners misunderstand SE. They think it is also a technique meant to do this “activation/deactivation” thing. Somatic Experiencing, when correctly understood and practiced is NOT a technique at all, it is a way of being; a way of living, attuning, and being in relationship with the client that supports their physiology, psyche and soul organically unfolding in the way that best fits their unique system, which may include all kinds of nuance and experiences.

Things that need to happen before we start getting the energy moving in any kind of activation/deactivation way: we need to first directly support the physiology to achieve some baseline regulation – the kidney/adrenal system needs to feel what it’s like to soften and come out of arousal (or if it’s flatlined we need to build up it’s sense of support and safety to the point that it feels able to come online again). The brainstem needs to learn what it feels like to come out of hypervigilance. The viscera needs to feel what it’s like to have it’s gut-feelings heard and honoured and validated. The fascia needs to experience the possibility that it can come out of rigidity and bracing. The neurochemistry must start to experience what it’s like to NOT be so ruled by stress chemistry.

Above all, the whole person must experience – mentally, emotionally, bodily – what it is like to be held in a safe space, listened to, attuned with, and supported appropriately.

With complex trauma like we have in industrialized society all of this needs to happen first, usually for many months if not years, before the system is authentically ready to mount an activation/deactivation response (no matter how titrated).

If a person with this kind of complex trauma goes into a TRE session, especially the group sessions or self-directed at-home exercises that have become quite popular, what will happen is generally one of three things:

  • Nothing. They will go through the motions but they won’t really sense anything and nothing much happens.
  • They will have to override their fear and terror in order to participate and will go through the motions and may even get a tremor response, but nothing will be achieved because the underlying sub- and unconscious somatic/emotional/mental management strategies have been actually reinforced by the experience. Someone who has been living in what we call “functional freeze” – meaning all this coping and management is going on in their system but they are unaware of it and it’s not yet physically presenting (like a duck – who appears to be gliding smoothly along the surface of the water, while actually its little legs are kicking furiously under the surface) may actually experience a feeling of stress relief, totally unaware that they have actually reinforced their coping strategies. *This brings up a very important distinction – there is a vast difference between stress relief/feeling better, and actual trauma healing and nervous system regulation.
  • Or two, they will not be able to override and their system will “blow up” in extreme emotional/physical/mental distress. They will “freak out” in some way, which unfortunately may even be viewed by some practitioners as some kind of beneficial catharsis.

In either case the most likely end result is reinforcement of existing trauma patterns and/or coping strategies, with no actual healing or regulation taking place, even though it may seem so in some cases.

One more point – I said that with the kind of trauma that is most common in the first world, complex early/developmental/surgical/shock trauma, a big Sympathetic discharge is the last thing we want to happen and I meant that literally. Meaning, we DO want it to happen eventually, after all the foundations have been built so that the person can have the energy and safety in their system to genuinely do that kind of work without overriding.

And here’s the thing – when the system is genuinely ready to do that activation/deactivation and the appropriate support is there, it just happens all on it’s own. There is absolutely no need to push on the system with poses to evoke a response. It just happens naturally and organically driven by the body’s instinctive wisdom. This is a tough sell for most Westerners though who have become SO conditioned to think that everything must have some kind of “quick fix” –  there must be a “tool for the job”, there must be a way to “hack the system” or “take a shortcut”. Sorry, no. When it comes to truly healing trauma and restoring regulation to the autonomic nervous system there is no shortcut, tool, technique, or exercise that will work.

Many of you may know that Irene has created online courses that apply the principles and modalities of Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Practice, and Feldenkrais. These online courses use many exercises and contain tools and techniques, and yet they have been very effective at helping people from over 40 different countries heal trauma and restore regulation and I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Why? Firstly, because though she calls them “neurosensory exercises” they are not exercises in the traditional sense, but rather unique lessons that apply the lens Moshe Feldenkrais developed in his Awareness Through Movement lessons, which was not about “fixing” but rather were about learning what we are doing already so that we can change it mindfully and biologically.

This lens is then focused in on crucial somatic systems in a kind of gentle inquiry that support a gradual awakening of self knowledge and increased capacity. The effect of all those neurosensory exercises and the way that they are layered and structured, combined with the education on nervous system physiology, group support from peers, and expert advice from Irene, myself, and our team, enable the participant to establish and strengthen that therapeutic relationship with themselves. Plus we still wholeheartedly encourage participants to seek out one-on-one support with a good practitioner if needed.

So to sum up. TRE is very useful for evoking a held sympathetic response. If the only traumatic thing you have ever experienced is a simple shock trauma (there was a car accident, or you were in a war zone, etc..) and your early wiring was good and solid because your parents were not stressed in some way but were actually able to meet you with good attunement and attention, then TRE might be good for you to release a simple shock trauma. Also, in some cases of complex trauma it could be used as a helpful intervention as part of a larger process IF the practitioner is well-attuned, and also firmly rooted in the nuanced understandings of trauma physiology that one learns in Somatic Practice and the post-advanced levels of Somatic Experiencing. I have also heard that there is more and more focus on building regulation and capacity in the TRE trainings, and increased awareness around being careful to steer clients away from big catharsis which is great to hear, though I still question the efficacy of working through the muscular system, rather than directly with the nervous system because again, when the correct support is there and the conditions are right, the tremor response will emerge all on it’s own organically.

If you are like the vast majority of the industrialized world’s population and your early wiring was NOT solid; if your trauma was relational, early/developmental, surgical, etc… plus shock trauma on top of all that – and this paints an accurate picture of 99% of my clients – then TRE is, in general, not recommended by us, especially if it is not in the context of an attuned, well-established therapeutic relationship, or if it is in a group class setting, or if it is done by yourself as an at-home exercise. When done in these ways it may support a temporary feeling of stress reduction or empowerment, which may be ok for some as part of a larger process, but it’s also possible that it will reinforce sub- or unconscious coping strategies which ultimately get in the way of true trauma healing and regulation, and if your system is severely compromised it could result in a big blow up with long-term deleterious effects.

* * *

So there you have it.

I consider nervous system education first, Somatic Practice second, Somatic Experiencing third, Feldenkrais fourth to be the golden quadrangle when it comes to healing trauma and restoring regulation, and that’s the way that Irene’s online courses (the 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup and SmartBody SmartMind) are structured so be sure to check those out.

*Note – The 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup is mostly self-study, with group and faculty support available in a private Facebook group, and is available all the time – it’s the starter course. SmartBody SmartMind is a much more in-depth 12-week group program that also has the online group and faculty support, in addition to live training calls with Irene and live Q&A calls with Irene and myself. This program currently runs once a year with limited enrolment.

I have also heard very good things about NARM, the work of Dr. Laurence Heller, from people that I trust and I would like to take that training myself. So if you want to find a person to work with one-on-one I would recommend someone trained in either Somatic Practice, Somatic Experiencing, NARM, Feldenkrais, or a combination of any of these.

Above all though – it has to be someone you trust and feel safe with. Your gut will usually know within the first few seconds, and definitely within the first session, if the practitioner is a good fit. Just ask yourself –

Do feel safe (enough) with this person? (It’s very common when starting trauma treatment to never have felt entirely safe, ever. So sometimes we need to start with safe enough).

Have they shown that they are competent? Meaning – have they outlined some kind of treatment plan, explained it’s purpose, and helped you understand yourself better?)

If so, then great.

If, on the other hand, they tell you that you will be “all better” in any set amount of time, or if they hit you right of the bat with exercises or techniques without explaining what they are doing, if they try to “make” you do” anything at all, or if they feel clinical, cold or impersonal say goodbye, and keep on looking.

I hope this article has been helpful for you in making an informed choice when it comes to treatment options, and maybe even offered some insight into understanding yourself and why some things may or may not have worked for you in the past. Here’s to your health!

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of The Trauma Vortex

There are some films that, no matter how many times I’ve seen them, I still seem to desire watching again once in a while, and I still really enjoy them. One such film is the third installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty treatment of the script is a refreshing change from the bubblegum feel of the first two movies and it perfectly reflects the growing angst in the main character as he turns into a teenager. Also, it is the first time we encounter the Dementors, those supremely spooky, ethereal, floating and tattered spooks of the Harry Potter universe.

Recently, when I watched this film again it came to me that Dementors are the perfect analog of what we, in the Somatic Experiencing world, call the trauma vortex. If you haven’t read or seen the Harry Potter books let me just briefly explain what these creatures do. For those of you are familiar, please bear with me for a moment.

Dementors are set to guard the wizarding world’s most dangerous criminals in the fortress prison of Azkaban. But the jail that they tend in the prisoner’s minds is even more imposing than the stone walls of Azkaban. Dementors feed off of every good memory, leaching away happiness until the prisoner is left with only their Dementor-harryabsolute worst memories and feelings. This sucks away their life and vitality, until even the thought of escape is unreal and they are condemned to live their life endlessly replaying the worst things that have happened to them.

This is EXACTLY what the trauma vortex does.

When we’re living with unresolved trauma and/or under the strain of chronic stress, our nervous system gets highjacked by the survival responses (Fight/Flight/Freeze) that have been mobilized to protect us from whatever the threat was or is. When trauma is unresolved, that means that this powerful survival energy is unresolved – in fact, from a nervous system perspective that is what our definition of trauma is – the presence of unresolved survival energy still trying to complete itself, still trying to find the source of threat, even though the threat may be long gone.

This whirling, swirling mass of frustrated energy trying to go somewhere, but finding no way out, is what we call the trauma vortex.

When this is the case we don’t have nearly as much access to our higher brain centers that enable learning, creativity and play. The survival energies, and the associated memories of the events that mobilized them, take center stage in the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind.

And survival energies are not meant to be ignored. They are meant to be irresistible forces that turn on for a little while to protect us from threat and then to turn off when the threat is over. Unfortunately, societal niceties, repressive parents, teachers or friends, lack of education, and our own big smart neocortex often keep us from allowing these processes to complete.

Fortunately, there is a way out. That’s what I do, help people to find their way out of the swirling, sickening mess of trauma, and we can look to this film for a useful tool in that process as well.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learns how to use a spell that repels the Dementors, called the Patronus charm. The incantation is “Expecto Patronus!”, but saying the words on their own will do nothing. The way to make the spell work, the thing that gives it its juice is memory; and not just any memory – it has to be a memory that is both positive and powerful.

The first time Harry tries the Patronus charm he uses the memory of the first time he rode a broom and it doesn’t work at all. That’s because this memory, while positive, isn’t very powerful, merely pleasant.

Then he digs deeper, finds a memory that he feels will work, gives it another go and POW! A brilliant cone of light erupts from his wand and drives the Dementor away. When his instructor asks him which memory he chose, Harry tells him that he picked the only memory he has of his parents, of a moment when they were both looking down at him and smiling, shortly before they were both murdered by Lord Voldemort, the story’s arch villain. He says he doesn’t even know if the memory was real, but it was all he had left of them.

This gives us insight into a powerful tool that we can use when battling our own internal Dementors – memory, and more importantly… feeling.  It was the feeling that was important, not the memory itself so much. In the story the instructor explains that when the wizard conjures a Patronus charm. the Dementor will then feed of the charm rather than the person. And it’s even possible to conjure a Patronus so powerful that it will essentially overload the Dementor’s circuits and drive it away entirely.

We can do this too.

It’s not magic, it’s the power of own minds and emotions. Again, it’s about the feeling.

So try this now… see if you can find a memory like this. It doesn’t even have to be “real”, what matters is that you recall the feeling. Some moment from your life that was extremely powerful and rich, a memory that is strong enough to make your throat thicken a bit with emotion, or that even brings some gentle, poignant tears. Find the feeling of that, really notice where it is in your body, how it fills you up. Make a kind of mental bookmark of that moment, that feeling.

Then, the next time you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or sunk low in depression, or just feeling blah, go back to that bookmark. It’s still there, even if it’s hard to find. Notice how you can summon that memory and that feeling – notice it in your body. It’s not about having that memory or emotion cover up the hardship you are currently feeling, it’s about letting it inform your current state. Go back and forth between feeling whatever form of yuck you are experiencing and the feeling of that powerful memory, let them talk to each other, notice each other.

Life isn’t fiction and this ain’t magic, the feeling of that memory will probably not drive away the blah completely, but it will take away some of the charge from that trauma vortex. It will diffuse it a bit, take away some of the energy so that the trauma vortex has a little less power.

Obviously this won’t work for everybody. Some people simply have no good memories or feelings available, and if this is the case, there are many, many other tools a good Somatic Experiencing Practitioner has in their belt that can be used .

This is just one thing to try and, over time, it can work quite well to take away some of the power from our own internal Dementors.

Now… wands at the ready!

The Poison Seed

Poison SeedI have a seed.

A little poison seed.

I keep it curled up in my innermost cells.


It was formed at the same time that I was –

As sperm met egg and they merged into one potential

One little zygote, lodged firmly against the womb wall of my Mother.


In that beginning the seed was planted

A poisonous seed of threat, of un-safety, of need.


It was watered by the stress chemicals in my Mother’s neurochemistry

So even as I grew around it, as I unfolded out from myself in all directions

Developing lungs, liver, heart and spleen, gallbladder, intestines

And all the other wondrous webs of interconnection

That toxic uncertainty, that feeling of cellular doubt remained.


Holographic, permeating my developing being with it’s message that all is not well.


It remained, this little poison seed

And it grew into a little poison tree

A nameless matrix of constriction and anxiety

That grew dark and uncertain in the forest of my body

A threat that I could not find for it was part of my very cells

And yet it’s message was clear…escape.


So… escape then, flee!


Six weeks early out of the womb and into an incubator

There, separated from consistent and sure attachment

The little poison tree grew stronger.


“See?”, it said, “even here, away from that poisoned well, you are still unsafe”.


Then from the incubator into the furnace

of silent, suburban misery where all looked well

while serpents swam under the surface, unspoken and unseen.


But my little guts felt all that was unsaid.

Felt the violence and rage lurking behind the uncertain eyes of my Father

Felt the depression and anxiety swimming in the cells of my Mother

Felt the hatred of their own unresolved misery as it poisoned our home.


The poison tree was validated when they split apart so soon after my arrival

Was vindicated the first time my Father’s hand met my flesh with violence

Was sure of it’s ground when the rage erupted on one side

When the depression simmered on the other

Was fertilized and began to flower when my brother sickened and died

When my sister left the house that Christmas Eve night

Amid shouted allegations and hatred, never to return.


The world is not safe.

The world is not safe.

The world is not safe.


As I grew big so did my poison tree.


It was in the depression and anxiety that now filled my body and mind

It was in the clumsiness and false bravado that led to all those stupid falls and injuries

It was in the compression and constriction of my muscles and bones

In the irregularity and misery of my bowels

In the need for that next smoke, that next hit

That next sweet and fleeting relief.


And so it would have stayed.


That poisonous seed grown to poisonous tree

Would surely have created within me

The same poisonous cancer flowers

That took my brother

If not for one thing,


My will to heal.


It was my will to heal that took me far away from my home.


My will to heal that led me into the wilderness

With only my backpack and my banjo on my knee

That led me to the jungle spirits of Hawaii

To the healing waters of the Oregon forests.


It was my will to heal that led the expedition

To explore my own untamed inner wilderness

Where I began to hack away the dead vines and rotten flowers

Where I began to uncover that hidden, suffering tree.


It was my will to heal that brought me the gift of my wife

Who led me by the hand out from my 15 years in the woods and into the world

Where I began to consider that maybe, just maybe the world could, possibly, be a safe place.


It was my will to heal that led me to discover

The everyday miracle of psychobiological healing

And to undertake that training myself

So that I could help others navigate their own uncertain depths.


And it was my will to heal that brought me

Yesterday afternoon, to my mentor’s office

That wise, old man who is counselor and advocate, catalyst and friend.


It was my will to heal

And the culmination of 20 years of self-effort

Learning, willingness to sense myself and be with what was found

That, combined with the skilled guidance of my old wizard ally

Led to me encountering, yesterday afternoon, my inner-most nemesis

That old, poison seed from whence grew that old, poison tree.


I lay there in the wizard’s office

On his table, in the present moment

And at the same time I was there

Within my cells, curled up behind my belly-button

Where I at last truly unearthed that old, poison seed.



I said to those poor uncertain cells

Which still vibrated with the fear of their beginnings.


Come out and see.

Come and feel.


Feel these loving hands holding my head.

See this room where I am safe.


And the seed heard.

And the seed felt.


Spontaneously, suddenly

My body flexed and then constricted

Turning onto my side, curled up in the same manner

As that developing fetus was, so long ago.


The wizard moved to my side and leaned his body there

All along my back, warm and inviting – a living, present-day womb

Where I, now a little cluster of vibrating cells

Now a grown man of 42

was firmly attached.


And into the silence of that moment he spoke the perfect words

That the little, poison seed never got to hear, so long ago…


“It’s ok. We are here. It’s safe now. You are wanted. We’ve been waiting for you.”


The seed heard.

The seed felt.


The seed





I used to have a seed.

I used to have a little, poison seed that

Grew into a big old blackened tree.


But now that seed is gone,

The tree is green,

And I am free.


The Coffee Parable

de4a8eeea6fe449888b371eafe8272d4I recently had a big AHA! moment.

I know this sounds silly, but it came when I realized, “you know what? life is just to damn precious to waste time drinking coffee that I don’t really like.”

Silly, I know. But it really did hit me all of a sudden that this “preference” I had, up ’til then, held for french roast coffee (the darkest roast available), was not really my preference at all.

You see, I had been flirting for a while with drinking medium roast coffee and all of a sudden it just hit me like, “BAM! I like this better!” Moreover, I realized that I had been subconsciously detesting the taste of french roast for a while, but had been in denial of this because I had for so many years just accepted that “I like dark roast”.

But when the momentum of my growing appreciation for something fruitier, subtler, with warmer notes and less acidity became unstoppable, culminating in that lightning bolt from the sky that declared forever more that, “I AM NOW A MEDIUM ROAST DRINKER”, well, when that happened it also hit me that my supposed preference for bitter, burnt tasting coffee came from my folks.

In my house growing up it always french roast. Always.

I had developed my preference simply because that’s what was around.

This is a great parable for relationships in general I think.

When we grow up in a abusive home, like I did, we cultivate and embed neural pathways and nervous system management strategies that help us navigate the stress of our experience. Then we subconsciously just accept that, “this is the way it is”.

The understandings of the detrimental effects of childhood trauma on the nervous system and brain, and in health and well-being as an adult, have only recently been understood. Google the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study for the science.

The point is that we all form conscious and subconscious preferences for certain experiences and behaviors that support the particular physiology we have developed and, in the case of traumatized individuals, those preferences are often for things that don’t actually serve us that well, in terms of our wholeness and health.

When we start to heal, we may find that our preferences for certain types of food, entertainment, environments, and even people may change.

We may realize, “you know what, I don’t actually LIKE being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t support me or express care and compassion”. And when we realize something like that, it’s so important that we muster the courage to leave those old desires, and even people, behind.

When we do, there is always something waiting for us that is better, that will more effectively serve our unfolding into a new, more integrated and healthy way of being.

Whether it be a new career, exercise routine, relationship, or city, it’s so important that we heed the advice of what our body tells us about what it really needs and wants.

Even if it’s something as simple as a damn fine cup of coffee.


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