Sept 2022 Issue | Coping with Stress and Trauma: Can We Really Just “Shake it Off”?
By Kritika Narula
“Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation.”
— Katie Cannon
Do you find yourself clenching your jaw tightly when you are having a stressful day at work or school? Or do you find your palms clenched into a fist? Some people have other nervous tics that manifest during stressful events, like shaking their legs uncontrollably or picking their skin. Our body has a way of responding to negative, external triggers, often by storing turbulent emotions. If emotions are stuck inside the body, can we shake them off?
Shaking for emotional catharsis…
Unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings can often get bottled up and stored in your body. Sylvia Tillman, a Certified TRE® Provider, and the founder of What is the Alternative, explains, “When we are stressed, we tense up. And the body stores this tension in the muscles. Many people notice after a particularly stressful time, that psychosomatic pain is (re)appearing in the form of tension headaches, back pain, teeth grinding, gastrointestinal issues etc. These are all signs of stress when one tries to hold everything together/keeps a stiff upper lip, but this translates as physical pain. Much tension is stored in the psoas muscles, also called the muscle of the soul, as it holds many emotions.” Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden, who wrote The Psychology of Self-Esteem advocates for accepting our feelings without exception, instead of disowning, denying, or repressing, which can lead to physical pain and issues.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score, also points to the impact of trauma on our bodies. He asks, “How can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?” The answer comes from bodywork practitioner, Licia Sky, who shares “you can’t fully recover if you don’t feel safe in your skin.”
Can literally shaking off negative emotions bring you to a place of equilibrium? This isn’t completely farfetched: we’ve seen our pets do it. After a bath, an intense vet session, or a confrontation with another dog or cat, our pets take their sweet time shaking from tip to toe and tail. It comes to them instinctively. It is a primitive response mechanism that helps alleviate the tension and stress stored in the muscles.
How can humans inculcate this primitive response more proactively into their coping strategies? Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises, or TRE for short, might be the answer. These exercises assist in the balanced regulation of the nervous system by activating our innate reflex mechanism (shaking or vibrating), which calms down the nervous system. The result? Emotional and physical equilibrium.
Meditation for people who don’t like to meditate
How do TRE exercises actually work? Tillman shares, “TRE is like an internal massage – with better effects as the shaking process reaches ‘hidden’ muscles that a massage therapist can’t reach from the outside. TRE is also called meditation for people who don’t like to meditate.”
At a time when healthcare resources are stretched thin, TRE provides an effective way for clients to take charge of their wellbeing and health. This is because TRE exercises can be learned and used throughout life; you only need to practice regularly for about 8-10 minutes every other day. Somatic tools like TRE are also a great option for people who either a) don’t find benefit in talk therapy, or b) want to use a mix of therapies, or c) feel like they have outgrown the benefits of talk therapy and seek a more holistic treatment plan.
As Tillman explains, “It’s great to give our busy minds a rest and let the body do the work – especially as the majority of people are too much in their heads anyway, [and] many feel disconnected from their bodies. The shaking mechanism of TRE resets the nervous system and by practicing on a regular basis many people report having much more resilience [to stress].” TRE, therefore, isn’t just a curative therapy, but also a preventative one.
The importance of involving your physical body when healing from emotional or psychological distress To borrow again from bodywork practitioner, Licia Sky cited in Dr. van der Kolk’s book, “The body is physically restricted when emotions are bound up inside. People’s shoulders tighten, their facial muscles tense. They spend enormous energy on holding back their tears—or any sound or movement that might betray their inner state. When the physical tension is released, the feelings can be released. Movement helps breathing to become deeper, and as the tensions are released, expressive sounds can be discharged.”
Tillman reinforces this idea, “Tension held in the body can manifest as physical pain, e.g., headaches/migraines, back/shoulder/neck pain, teeth grinding, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, irritability etc., typically psychosomatic pain, where your doctor checks you from top to bottom and tells you that you are absolutely fine or ‘it’s all in the head.’”
As mentioned before, TRE can be a great alternative, as well as, complementary to cognitive therapies for a holistic healing plan. For many people, the brain is already working overtime, so relieving the brain while working with the body can be game-changing for those who are exhausted by the stress storage. Our body remembers and we owe it to ourselves to heal everywhere we store the memory of stress or trauma.