By Susan Munro
Trauma releasing exercises (TRE) were developed by David Berceli, who initially noticed that animals and small children shook when experiencing trauma, a practice that seemed to help with their recovery. We were pleased to invite Lori Ann Hitchcock and Joan McDonald to New Life Foundation to teach TRE recently. Here, New Life volunteer Susan Munro interviews Lori and Joan about this unique, body-based therapy.
How did you come to this therapy?
Lori: Joan introduced it to me in the summer of 2010 when I was back (in Canada) from some travelling so she just invited me over and thought it was something I would be interested in learning. I am now based in Chiang Mai.
How does this technique differ from traditional therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Lori: It’s a body-based practice which works with the neurology and the anatomy of the body. There are other practices as well which are body-based but there are a lot more that are focused on the ego part of the brain, the neocortex (higher-brain-function) cognitive treatments.
So does this technique work quite well with other treatments for PTSD and other trauma-related issues?
Joan: I think it is a great combination because it helps lessen the emotional charge so that people can more ably speak about their experiences. Because with PTSD, for example in the military, people don’t want to talk about it beccause it is so emotionally charged. When they do TRE they will naturally begin to speak about their experiences because they’re no longer emotionally charged about it.
Would you say this technique has benefits for people who have not actually suffered trauma?
Lori: Yes, because it is re-initiating the natural response that has to do with stress, and everybody has stress in their lives, and the accumulation of the stress, and because we have turned off the mechanism of releasing that stress then everybody can benefit from TRE, so it can really help everybody on the stress continuum, from the accumulation of everyday stress that’s never dealt with, such as being cut off in traffic and the alarm going off, all of those things build up, and so if we don’t have a way of releasing that it will build up.
This technique has grown the fastest in the developing world – it’s only recently that it’s come to the West. Why do you think this is?
Lori: I think it is about how we recognise trauma. A lot of people in the Western World, when they hear the word ‘trauma’ think of natural disasters, world-torn countries, we think of the extreme situations but in reality, trauma is feeling overwhelmed to the point of feeling that you can’t help yourself, which is common everywhere, but certainly we feel that the places that TRE has grown the quickest is in areas where there has been some kind of natural disaster, or something that’s really brought on mass trauma, because then we really recognise the need for that kind of practice, while in Western culture, we’ve just gotten used to it.
Joan: South Africa has hundreds and hundreds of providers of TRE now – a very extensive programme, and that’s because everyone knows they are traumatised because of apartheid. In any country where there has been some kind of natural or cultural traumatic experiences or generational cultural issues, they recognise that they are highly effected by these experiences whereas in the Western World we haven’t really made a connection between stress and health and the effects of that. I think in the West we’ve so segmented our whole existence, and we have distanced ourselves from our world and nature, and so because of that we’re disconnected than other countries.
You obviously use these techniques yourselves – what changes do you think TRE has wrought in your lives?
Lori: For me – presence, and being more grounded in my body. Also, body and mind awareness – and becoming more of the observer in my life, so really noticing and being able to make clear, decisive decisions about what is best for me – as well as relief of stress-related pain in my body, more looseness, a clear mind, feeling more calm, more empowerment, and confidence.
Joan: I don’t have the same emotional reactivity to the things around me that I may have had ten years ago. I have much more awareness of my stress, because I’ve been more grounded and centered.
I’ve noticed that certain people become addicted to stress, and being on the go and keeping plates spinning and things like that, and yet when you do TRE and are forced to come into the moment and into your body, you realise it is not healthy to be that person who is always running.
Joan: The addiction is to adrenaline, and when I do workshops on stress I talk about the adrenaline addiction and three things, busy-ness, worry and drama – personal life drama – and we get addicted to them, just like an adrenaline drug – and energy drinks, we’re addicted to those because they get the adrenaline pumping.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, and be honest – it does look slightly weird, this practice. How would you convince people who are skeptical of this therapy, to come and join?
Lori: TRE is a natural body response, it is something we are innately designed to do, so that in itself is hard to ignore. Also, I think that when people are told that it uses the brain stem, it bypasses the ego part of the mind and it allows you to use your body in movement, that is often attractive for people. A lot of people can’t sit there and tell themselves to slow down their thoughts (like in meditation).
So you mean it is liberating for people to know they’re not consciously making these movements themselves?
Lori: Exactly, a lot of people feel like they should be meditating and doing yoga because they know their mind is busy and they need to slow down their mind, but they feel like they can’t do that, so this gives them an opportunity to use their body and the neurology of the body, it slows down their nervous system and allows them to get to that place where this their kind of meditation without actually having to go through that thinking brain (of slowing down their thoughts).
I did notice that compared to regular mindfulness meditation where you are sitting in a room with your eyes closed, there is less activity in the mind.
Joan: TRE is a wonderful adjunct to mindfulness meditation for those that have that busy mind. So really TRE helps you live more mindfully.
Lori: Yes, and when people see animals shake, they recognise that they’ve experienced really high emotions, and they remember experiencing shaking when they’ve had really high emotions, and that we don’t want to shake, we can all relate to having to say a speech and shaking and not wanting people to see.
It’s good that you are trying to approach people intellectually as well as through the experience, that works really well. Now, I’m just curious, how does someone with limited physical capability manage? I noticed some people can’t sit on the ground very well, or has trouble bending their knees. How would you address something like that?
Lori: Well the whole process is about tensioning the muscles and then releasing to tire the muscles, so the goal is always to adapt the exercises, so we are tiring the muscles that are involved, so it can be done in a chair, it can be done on the floor.
Joan: I have worked with people in wheelchairs, have worked with amputees, and everyone tremors. When I worked with someone who was in a wheelchair positioned his legs in a certain way and he started to tremor. I’ve watched a video of David (Berceli, the founder of TRE) working with a woman who was a double-amputee and she tremoured and it helped with her phantom pain. That’s really cool.
What is the most surprising, or fulfilling, experience you have had with teaching the treatment?
Lori: I would say it is the results that we see people experience. There is one case that comes to mind of a person with anxiety, and the difference in that person over three sessions over five days, in her ability to identify and self-regulate the anxiety was amazing. TRE brings out what you are experiencing in the world. So if you’re really tired, really anxious, then TRE will bring it out. I’ve seen the technique help people to self-regulate themselves in TRE and them they can do it outside in the real world which has been relly gratifying. And it’s something that people can do themselves, they don’t need to come to a therapist either, they can self-practice.
What is on your teaching schedule for the rest of the year?
Our biggest goal for the next six months is to train people to be trainers, because we cannot be the magic of spreading this in Thailand – we need people to train so they can go out and train people and have it spread that way.
Is you could teach this technique anywhere, where would you go?
Lori: I think more so than choosing a location, it is more about being called as a response team, which is another role we could play here in Thailand – that if there were disaster to happen we could be part of that team so that we can help masses of people, because that is part of the reason David Berceli came up with this, if we need to help masses of people, we can’t do that one-on-one counselling and therapy, and you know not everybody has the money or the time to go to therapy, so to teach them something that they can do on their own would be wonderful.
Good luck with that, I hope that you get out there and manage to do that because that would be awesome.
Lori: Absolutely, Joan has been to Japan to work with tsunami victims already, and been to South Africa, so definitely, it’s coming.
New Life hopes to host further workshops in TRE in the future. Lori is based at TRE Thailand, in Chiang Mai, and teaches both one-on-one and in groups.