TRE is a set of physical exercises that, it’s claimed, allow you to shake away tensions, pain, anxiety and some other health worries and woes. But what is TRE, how does it work – and is it proven? We investigate.
For as long as I remember, I’ve done a strange thing with my leg. If I hold it in a certain fixed position it will start to shake. I do it every so often and don’t know why, but it seems I’ve actually been practising my own, mini version of TRE. But what is TRE, you might be asking – how might it help you and what’s it got to do with my wobbly leg?
Let’s start with the first of those questions…
What is TRE?
It’s a serious of seven exercises that create a shaking or tembling sensation on the body that supports the body to release stress. ‘TRE activates our natural reflex mechanism of shaking (all mammals have this ability; think of a dog after a stressful situation and how they shake off the excess energy) and this releases tension in our muscles – with a number of knock-on effects,’ explains Sylvia Tillman, a certified TRE provider from Tremendous TRE in England.
What Does TRE Stand For?
It’s an acronym for Trauma Releasing Exercises (aka Trauma Release Exercises) – although, don’t panic, as you’ll discover in a minute, when it comes to our body and TRE, trauma doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.
Saying that though, TRE was first developed by a specialist in actual trauma, social worker Dr David Berceli, to help people who’d lived through war deal with what they’ve been through.
The story is that he noticed that when children were faced with extreme fear they started to shake, while their parents didn’t. But after the event the children seemed to be more resilient and able to, erm, shake off what had happened to them. He theorised that the movement of the body during shaking or trembling might play a role in this – and so developed the idea of TRE.
Berceli has used TRE extensively with the military to help PTSD, and in some regiments it’s taught to soldiers before deployment – but, it can also be used to help with less serious stress-related tension.
You see while when we think of the word trauma we tend to think of awful life events, but for your body, ‘trauma doesn’t necessarily mean big T trauma like living through war, witnessing a murder, experiencing robbery etc,’ explains Sylvia. ‘An accumulation of day to day challenges, arguments with your partner/family, changing (job) situations, loss, illness, (financial) worries etc, can have a massive impact on the body.’
‘It’s impossible to go through life without experiencing some degree of trauma. We all face challenges and stressors such as work or family life, the daily news and politics, environmental concern and last but not least everything we’ve gone through since C19 hit, e.g. restrictions, fear, uncertainty, grief etc. – our resilience has certainly been put to the test.’
As Sigmund Freud said, the mind may forget, but the body does not – yet the job of TRE is to help it do so and release any feelings it might be hanging on to.
How Does TRE Work?
‘TRE helps the body to release deep muscular patterns of tension – from the inside, as opposed to a massage, which causes this from the outside,’ says Sylvia.
‘You probably know, and have experienced, that we tense up when we are stressed and holding all this tension in our bodies can lead to all kinds of aches and pains.
‘Relaxing the body – and there are many modalities to do so, from breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness to yoga or laughter etc. – can reduce this pain. And shaking does this too.’
On top of this, Sylvia explains that during a stressful event our bodies produce energy, which supports us to defend and protect ourselves. When this energy doesn’t get used up, it gets stuck inside the body, i.e. adrenaline and cortisol keep us on high alert, constantly looking for danger (we are in fight or flight mode).
‘This activation can stay on for a long time, sometimes years, and the energy is waiting to be used up to complete the cycle. Only then, i.e. when this excess energy can be discharged, the cycle can be completed. It doesn’t matter what caused the trauma in the first place, what’s most important is the completion of the response.
‘TRE helps with that: it activates our natural reflex mechanism of shaking and when we begin to tremor, chronic tension, stress and even trauma can be released, the nervous system will go back to equilibrium.’
The Importance of the PSOAS Muscles
Specifically, TRE aims to reduce tension in the PSOAS (pronounced so-as) muscles which are the muscles that attach our torso to our legs.
This is important because, it’s suggested that during stress these muscles switch on as a defence mechanism. It’s the muscle that allows us to curl up into a ball to protect our internal organs – something animals also do if they feel threatened – and, our body activates this even if we’re not about to be disembowelled by a cheetah!
While normally this muscle relaxes when we shake off the threat – literally in the case of most animals – prolonged stress causes tension to be held in the muscles restricting their function.
However, the PSOAS are incredibly important muscles for normal body function. You use them when you walk up stairs, when you bend forward and when you sit or stand up straight.
If they’re tight, other muscles will have to work in ways they aren’t designed to in order to compensate for the reduced movement and this can lead to pain in the back, hips, shoulders and knees.
The exercises involved in TRE aim to stress the PSOAS muscle. As you’ll know if you’ve ever done a heavy workout, stressed muscles actually start to shake, and this same process occurs during TRE – but in turn that relaxes the muscles reducing tension, pain and other effects associated with it.
And, it also works to release stress, anxiety and other emotions that the body is holding on to. That might take a little more a stretch in logic to understand than the purely muscular effects of a tight PSOAS, but, ‘I invite people to question their perception,’ says Sylvia. ‘Our challenges are not just in the mind, they are in the body, too. We seem to have forgotten how important the mind-body connection is and put more emphasis on cognitive methods rather than somatic (body) exercises.
‘With TRE you give the busy mind a rest and concentrate on the body – the body does the work, without the need to verbalise anything (very important for men in particular!).’
What Can TRE Help?
As we said, the original use of the technique was to treat PTSD, and other serious trauma, and it was used alongside psychological counselling. The fact that it helps people reduce anxiety and feelings without having to talk about what they had gone through was a very powerful tool.
However while that kind of work continues in professional enviroments, it’s also now possible to use TRE as a self help method to release stress, and complaints associated with it.
‘According to Dr Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga, stress is associated with almost 90% of all illnesses; so the simple fact that the dissipation of tension relaxes the nervous system can have many positive consequences,’ says Sylvia.
She says that the release associated with practicing TRE can help with relaxation, resilience, more energy and optimism, better sleep, less pain – esp. psychosomatic pain like back/shoulder/joint pain, tension headaches, teeth-grinding, gastrointestinal conditions etc.
‘I’ve seen the benefits for myself in much improved lower back and hip pain as well as resilience – I am so grateful that I had TRE with me during C19.’
How Do You Do It?
TRE starts with six warm-up exercises – that are similar to yoga poses/sequences (and include things like touching your toes or rotating your spine) – with the purpose of fatiguing the muscles to easily activate the tremoring process.
‘For the actual TRE the person lies on a mat, bending their knees, feet sole-to-sole which opens the knees and by slowly bringing the knees together, the tremoring process starts – everybody can tremor, it’s an innate process!
I haven’t put the specific exercises in this piece because practising TRE as, it might throw up some unexpected emotions, so, it’s important to make sure you feel secure before starting it alone – or work with a Certified TRE Provider who can facilitate the session safely.
What Does It Feel Like?
‘It depends whom you ask,’ says Sylvia.
‘Your mind will probably wonder what’s going on, but for your body, the tremors are natural and your body will recognises their true nature.
‘Generally, participants report a deep relaxation and enjoy the self-care element of it.
‘Getting off that mat might be the hardest bit, because it’s so relaxing – on the other hand, sometimes it feels very energising.’
As I said, while I’ve not yet tried TRE, although after this I want to give it a go, the weird thing I naturally do with my leg feels just like it’s vibrating out of my control – although I just have to think about it stopping for that to happen. And yes, it is kind of calming. I find I do it subconsciously sometimes when I’m concentrating!
Is TRE Scientifically Proven?
Admittedly, there’s a limited number of independent studies on the process.
Most of the studies in English, published in journals, that I’ve managed to find, have been carried out by Dr Bercelli.
But, in one 10-week trial, he did demonstrate that people using TRE scored more highly on measures of physical wellbeing, mental state, ability to handle stress and enjoyment and quality of life.
An independent researcher who seems to be quite interested in TRE is Dr Jill Beattie from Monash University in Australia who has published a couple of small trials on the process.
In her work, an individual case report on a soldier, published in the Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health showed clear benefits in reducing stress and symptoms of PTSD. Another paper showed positive benefits on depression, stress and anxiety on two firefighters.
There is however another school of thought that says it’s not based in science and benefits are likely to be placebo-based. But, frankly, if it works, there’s nothing wrong with placebo anyway!
Do You Need a TRE Teacher?
First of there are some people who should not try TRE on their own because of the emotions it might trigger.
‘If somebody is sensitive, has physical or psychological conditions, a complex history of trauma or any medical limitations, it’s best to learn TRE with a Certified TRE Provider,’ says Sylvia.
‘The most important requirement in TRE is that you feel safe, grounded and know how to pay attention to your body in order to be able to self-regulate.’
Otherwise, you can try it on your own, but Sylvia says it’s still best to have a short course of lessons to understand what’s happening and experience the benefits (rather than just jumping in via YouTube or something). ‘Learning something new is much easier when you know what to do, when you get the foundation right and when you know what it is all about.
Many people have tried TRE on their own, it’s a safe stress release method for most people. Self-learning has its limits, though. Some people gave up as they didn’t understand what’s happening and what TRE’s benefits are.’
Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Try TRE?
As discussed, if you do have some kind of big T trauma in your life, it’s best not done alone.
‘But there’s also some other groups for whom it should be avoided for non emotional reasons. TRE is not recommended during pregnancy and for people who have been diagnosed with epilepsy,’ says Sylvia.
Sylvia teaches TRE online so if you want to find out more, pop along to her website at TremendousTRE
So, there you have it – a quick guide to what TRE is, what it might help and why. So, have you tried it? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments if you have.
If you also want to look into ways to reduce muscle tension externally as well as internally, have a look at our guide to percussion massage. It goes through everything you need to know if you’re thinking of buying, or using, a massage gun.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.