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”….

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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.

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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!