How to Shake Your Trauma (Book Snippet 18)
Given Thursday’s tragic attack in Nice, the recent police shootings in Dallas and the shootings in Orlando, it seems sadly appropriate to post a snippet that addresses how to release trauma from the body.
Generally, an event, or a series of events, is classified as a trauma if it overwhelms our ability to process this event adequately. In trauma research, a distinction is made between a shock trauma and developmental trauma. A shock trauma is a sudden, and often extreme, occurrence that immediately triggers our survival instincts — such as an explosion, an earthquake, someone yelling at us, or a fire. In contrast, a developmental trauma results from a series of events over a period of time that triggered constant anxiety or fear. For example, a developmental trauma can be caused by recurring abuse or even by constant criticism or humiliation. Physiologically, our body’s response to such intense events, whether they are physical, emotional, or both, follows the same pattern. If an external stimulus is tagged as potentially threatening or harmful, our fight, flight, or freeze response is set in motion. The more often this chain of reactions is triggered, the more our body creates a so-called holding pattern, resulting in chronic tension or even pain.
The Brain in the Gut
It appears that a significant amount of information is retained in a part of our body called the abdominal-pelvic-brain or gut brain. The abdominal-pelvic-brain is an extensive network of neurons widely dispersed throughout the gut, spanning the area of our solar plexus down to our pelvic bone. The doctor and researcher Byron Robinson first introduced the term abdominal-pelvic-brain in 1907. In the last twenty years there has been an increase in research about the connection between our neocortex and our gut brain, alluding to the possibility that future psychiatry may have to take into consideration the treatment of our gut brain as much as the brain we carry in our skull.
Top-Down and Bottom-Up
Our amygdala response can be triggered through different channels. The top-down response is initiated when our cortical brain interprets a stimulus (something we see, hear, feel, or even something we remember) as threatening. The bottom-up response is triggered when an instinctive reaction by our gut brain sends a stress signal upwards to the amygdala (for example, when we are exposed to a sudden and startling stimulus like a loud noise or the loss of balance).
Some of the nerves in our gut brain belong to the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves that run through our upper body and neck into our brain. The vagus nerve in our lower body is embedded in a big muscle called the psoas muscle. The psoas connects our upper thighbones with the lower part of our spine.
When the psoas muscle contracts fully, it pulls us into a foetal position in the attempt to protect our internal organs from anticipated harm. From within the psoas, the vagus nerve measures the degree of tension and sends this feedback to the amygdala. As long as the vagus nerve detects a significant degree of tension in the psoas, it signals to the amygdala that the threat has not yet passed.
One of the consequences of unresolved trauma is the tension held in our body, particularly the gut brain and the psoas muscle. If this tension is not released, our gut keeps signalling the brain that we are not yet safe.
In other words; if our gut isn’t fully relaxed and there is residual tension, our system is kept in a constant state of alert. As a result, our amygdala is also not relaxed, and we continually have heightened levels of adrenalin and noradrenalin rushing through our system leading to irritability, anxiety, irrational behaviour, numbness, or even flashbacks.
In the late 1970s, Dr David Berceli, a trauma relief worker, made an important observation in a bomb shelter. As the mortar shells were hitting the area surrounding the shelter, he observed how, following every loud explosion, the people in the shelter instinctively moved their upper body into a curled position, sometimes even into a full foetal position. As we learned above, the muscle responsible for this movement is the psoas muscle, which pulls our body into a foetal position in order to protect our internal organs. Once the immediate danger had passed, the children in the shelter began to tremble and shake — whereas none of the adults did.
Berceli began to witness this pattern all around the world — shortly after a ‘traumatic’ event, children were trembling and shaking but adults were not. He began to realize that the children’s response might be the body’s natural attempt to heal the system by releasing additional tension stored in the psoas through tremors. It seemed that adults across cultures had learned to suppress shaking as a sign of weakness. He began to wonder if we had hereby rid our body of a natural mechanism that allows us to process and release the physical and psychological aftermath of traumatic events. Berceli was collecting evidence about the important role of the psoas muscle in our reaction to ‘traumatic’ events and its connection with the fight, flight, freeze response triggered by the amygdala. He began to search for exercises that would assist our body in letting go, thereby unlearning the harmful pattern of suppressing involuntary tremors. Ultimately, he selected a set of seven simple exercises that are known as the Trauma Releasing Exercises or TRE (Berceli, 2008).
Today, Berceli travels across the world teaching this simple seven-step process to others, sometimes hundreds of people simultaneously, who have endured a ‘traumatic’ event. I was surprised by just how enjoyable and relaxing I find this involuntary movement triggered by the exercises. I trained in TRE in order to teach these exercises to clients who feel tense and rigid or who suffer from lower back pain. I value the TRE-exercises especially because they don’t necessarily require the support of a trained therapist. The exercises are easy to learn and can be done by my clients in the privacy of their own home.
Click here for an introductory video that explain the seven exercises.
 I am putting ‘traumatic’ in captions because there is per se not a class of events that is ‘traumatic’. What ends up being ‘traumatic’ is dependent on the complex interaction of perception and mental processing.
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