It was in a bomb shelter in Lebanon in 1979 that Dr David Berceli first noticed it. Hidden from the bomb blasts and mayhem outside, petrified children trembled as they clung to their parents. He noticed something else: parents were consoling their children, staying calm, not trembling at all.
Years later, working with refugees of war in Sudan, he noticed something similar. When there were bomb blasts or other signs of danger, adults’ first responsibility was to grab the children around them and to rush them to a place of safety. Again, the children responded by trembling. The adults showed no signs of fear.
When Berceli, who worked as a trauma specialist in these war-torn countries at the time, questioned the adults about this afterwards, they told him that they had to suppress their fear and could not afford to show signs of distress because they didn’t want to frighten the children. It was their role to comfort them, to stay strong and to make them feel as safe and contained as possible.
Time passed and he interviewed the adults again.
The children had bounced back and recovered from the trauma whereas the adults had developed signs of the residual effects of trauma, some developing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A new approach to trauma is born
Dr Berceli spoke to me about his experiences during a workshop on trauma releasing exercises (TRE) in Cape Town, a revolutionary method of trauma treatment he has developed.
Because of his experience in war-torn African and Middle Eastern countries as Catholic priest, social worker and trauma specialist, he became intrigued by the tremor response during and immediately after traumatic events. He suspected that tremoring played a role in releasing trauma and reducing a person’s risk of developing PTSD.
He realised that neurological factors might be at play and therefore consulted neurologists and did intensive research. As a result he developed TRE.
He focused on intervention amongst soldiers and veterans in the US army. He renamed these workshops “Combat Operational Relaxational Exercises” (CORE)as it was far more acceptable to soldiers. One of the advantages of TRE is that it does not have to be facilitated by a counsellor. Soldiers are trained to facilitate one another. The resistance to intervention and help is thus significantly lower.
He later branched out to other sectors. TRE is now taught and practised in over 30 countries and is not only used for trauma recovery but also to deal with everyday stresses. It is facilitated in groups or individually and used as a self-help tool. The method is non-verbal, the response universal, and the costs minimal, which makes it applicable to people across the world.
How the body responds to trauma
“Trauma is an overwhelming and seemingly unbearable life experience,” explains Berceli.
“As a human species, we are neurologically, biologically and physiologically designed to experience, endure, survive and even evolve from traumatic events. We are genetically coded to let go of and recover from trauma as a way of ridding ourselves of any experience that obstructs or interferes with the natural evolutionary process of the human body. Trauma is an opportunity for change and birth.”
When faced with a dangerous situation, the instinct takes over. The most primitive parts of the brain – the limbic system and brainstem – take over, the body responds by releasing cortisol and adrenalin, the person is put on a high state of alert, becoming very focused. The blood goes to the muscles to enable the person to fight or to run.
When faced with danger, muscles contract to protect the person from harm. The psoas muscles (so-called “connectors”) are the muscles that play the most important role in the fight/flight response in humans. The psoas muscles remain contracted until danger is over.
Animals in their natural habitat release the charge that has built up through trauma by means of tremoring, the body’s natural ability to discharge the excess energy.
During the workshop Berceli showed us a video of a bear who had to run away from danger. After escaping, the bear lay on his back, trembling uncontrollably. The bear then let out a huge, loud sigh, calmed down and continued with his normal activities seemingly as if nothing had happened.
This is what allows wild animals to survive as they don’t live in constant fear or panic. Tremoring and release allow them to heal and to build resiliency for future trauma.
As a result of people’s overemphasis on the mind and need to “be in control” and not show any sign of “weakness” or “vulnerability”, we have deadened this shaking mechanism so that it no longer reduces muscle tension.
When there is no tremoring, the psoas muscle remains contracted. The charge is not released. The body stores this, memorises it, and creates dysfunctional patterns that affect the mind, body and emotions. It channels this pent-up charge into intense emotions such as hatred, rage and distrust.
No wonder, says Berceli, that the perpetrators of violence and abuse are often victims of trauma which was never resolved. Studies have shown an increase in domestic violence five years after war. People get wrapped in a trauma cycle, repeating violence to themselves or others.
In the case of PTSD, aroused energy generated at the time of the event is prevented from being discharged and remains trapped in a bio-neural-physiological loop that causes a repetition-compulsion behaviour. Until the brain receives a signal from the central nervous system that the danger is over, the body will continue to repeat the bio-neural pattern of protection and defense.
How TRE works
Berceli believes that the answer to resolving trauma lies in the body. It works the other way around to traditional treatment methods such as psychotherapy and meditation. Instead of changing thought patterns to bring about relaxation, the body relaxes which results in emotional changes.
TRE consists of six exercises, designed to evoke natural “neurogenic” tremors in a controlled and sustained way. These tremors release deep chronic muscular tension held within the body. They come from the centre of gravity of the body which is protected by the psoas muscles.
When these neurogenic tremors are evoked at this powerful centre of the body where the contraction is created, the shaking reverberates throughout the entire body, traveling along the spine, releasing deep chronic tension from the sacrum to the cranium.
At the workshop
Berceli’s four-day workshop includes many hours of tremoring. I arrived at the workshop with very little prior knowledge of TRE and didn’t know what to expect. I was there for the morning session to cover a story.
What surprised me was the vast array of tremor responses amongst the participants who included health care workers, teachers, alternative healers and state employees.
Looking around me, I noticed that several participants had spectacular tremors, some which included moaning, crying and even uncontrollable laughter. I found this disconcerting and a bit upsetting at first but this reduced as I started to view this as a healing process and listened to the positive feedback afterwards.
My tremors were far more reserved – “little intellectual tremors”, I called it at first. This was actually spot on. The combination of my role there as journalist to write a story, my leaning towards Western medicine and my training as a clinician were initial stumbling blocks. I thought too much, analysed and inhibited my body’s ability to let go.
It made a huge difference when Berceli who facilitated and did the rounds came to talk to me. He said tremoring is an individual process and explained that there is no right or wrong way. The body releases what it needs to release. It understands what it must do to soften and relax the patterns of tension that have been created over the years. For some, this deep relaxation allows deep emotions to surface. Others can just have a physical reaction of shaking.
“Avoid ego interference and judgement,” he warned. “Never judge the body, just observe it.” What I found very helpful was his advice to divert my thoughts away from my body and to daydream. When I did that and my mind stopped overriding the body’s natural approach, the tremors occured.
My one-day attendance extended into the full four days. I have also just completed four months of bi-monthly peer supervision meetings required for certification to practice. By now, I have learnt to take matters as they are and not to expect anything. The body is unpredictable, one never knows how it will respond and to honor it is to allow it to take the lead.
Watch the video of people's experiences with TRE:
Contact Dr Melanie Salmon and Lawrence Dreyer, the South African TRE co-ordinators. This husband-and-wife team also run courses on Quantum Energy, a method that changes beliefs at the subconscious level and releases stress/trauma from the body. Tel: 028 3140 014 .
(Ilse Pauw, October 2010)