WTF is TRE?

This post is by QSY lead teacher Leslie Stokman. 

Four years ago, I discovered something that has profoundly changed my life and my yoga practice. This is not an exaggeration. Since I’ve been practicing TRE, I have noticed a clear decrease in uncomfortable body tension, making my yoga practice a lot less of a struggle – I no longer feel like I’m fighting my body for range of motion. I’ve also seen an increase in psychological resilience, allowing for an easier time relating well to others personally and professionally. 

As a Certified TRE Provider, part of my mission is to spread TRE to anyone who could benefit from reducing the impact of stress in their lives. I’ll be offering it as a part of our Building Fires Retreat later this Fall. It is also my aim to educate people about what it is! There will be a little bit of theory in this blog post  about the nervous system, and it can get complex, but also fascinating. So if you’re curious about what’s made such a big difference in my body and life, read on. 

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TRE stands for Tension/Trauma Release Exercise and was developed by Dr. David Berceli. TRE is a body-based stress-reduction and healing practice, and more literally it’s a process for eliciting and regulating automatic, therapeutic tremors in your body. In short, you perform seven activating movements that gently fatigue or stress certain muscles including the psoas, then relax into a position where neurogenic tremors can arise. (They’re called neurogenic tremors to distinguish them from pathological (disease-related) tremors found in situations like Parkinson’s or epilepsy.)

The tremor mechanism is something completely natural to all mammals. You might have noticed your dog trembling after getting spooked or nervous. Maybe you’ve seen this video of a polar bear shaking himself back from being tranquilized. In a bomb-shelter with a community caught in a civil war, Dr. David Berceli noticed that children would shake once the danger has passed. Some adults also recall times when they themselves have felt like their body was shaking uncontrollably during or after a stressful, emotional or traumatic experience, or even just when feeling really excited or nervous.

What’s really going on when the body tremors like this? To understand TRE, we have to back up and explore the nervous system from the lens of the polyvagal theory a little bit. When faced with a real or perceived threat or danger, our nervous system picks a response: fight, flight, or freeze.* If our nervous system chooses the freeze response, or if our efforts to fight or flee are thwarted, either because of social norms (like, “Don’t punch your coworker,”) or physical restraint (like being trapped in a car with your seatbelt on while going through an accident), that means our bodies have marshalled a whole bunch of energy and neurotransmitters/hormones (including the ones that get a bad rep like cortisol), but didn’t get to do anything with them. 

Activation without action, or energizing without release, is where stress adds up and where symptoms of a traumatic reaction can originate. Our bodies just hold onto this pent-up energy, remnants of the stress response. The newest work from the field of traumatology and the relationship between emotion, stress and disease tends to produce book titles with this theme: The Body Keeps the Score, The Body Remembers, and When the Body Says No are a few examples. Imagining all the interpersonal conflicts, stressful days at work and life-changing losses we’ve endured, it can be a little alarming to think of what our bodies are holding onto. 

If you freeze, or are unable to fight or run away, the way to move through this pent-up stress is to tremor! This is a completely healthy and purposeful reaction: the shaking, vibration or tremoring completes the cycle of activation and allows your body and nervous system to return to, or get closer to its baseline. The only sad part is that most modern societies have either forgotten about it, or dismissed it as a sign of weakness. When you learn to engage with this process in a safe, controlled way, you can give your body and nervous system the gift of release and healing

Once I established a consistent practice and began to see the increase in my flexibility and emotional resilience, I decided to become a Certified TRE Provider. Through my training I learned that in other countries, TRE is recognized by the healthcare and insurance systems in the same way that massage therapy is here in Canada. In some places, TRE is practiced in classrooms, students and teachers alike! I believe TRE is on the same level as, and has the potential to become a practice as popular and useful as yoga and meditation. 

At this Autumn’s Building Fires Retreat, I’ll be offering TRE as one of several self-healing tools to ground and regulate our nervous systems. If you are curious to learn TRE sooner than the end of October, you can book a private session (just like booking a private yoga session) by emailing leslie@queenstreetyoga.com. There is great value in seeking guidance from a provider, and in practicing as a group. Please reach out to me if you’d like to connect about this powerful practice. 

Warmly,Leslie

*Note: sometimes people also include the fawn response, which can be considered a type of freeze response. There is also the “befriend” response, but for the purposes of understanding TRE, we’re working with times when befriending has failed or was not an option.

Links to keep learning: 

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