Trauma and tension exercises

Tension and trauma releasing exercises can effectively help children who have experienced stress
By Melissa Fagan

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My son’s first experience of life was traumatic. His birth in the UK was a horrible mix of distress in labour, meconium in the waters and a weeklong stay in ICU. This was followed by MRI scans, regular hospital checkups and a lot of uncertainty about his future outcomes. Thankfully, he made a full recovery and went on to reach all of his early childhood milestones. But at the age of five, his growing anxiety became a cause for concern. Like most children his age, he was afraid of monsters and the dark, but he had other unfounded fears too, such as dogs, showers, crowds and loud noises. Given that he was about to enter his Grade R year at a new school, an experience that in itself could become a cause for anxiety, I decided to address these concerns. I turned to TRE – the therapy I had used to heal my own stress and trauma.
What is TRE?
TRE stands for tension and trauma releasing exercises. It is a body-based modality developed by Dr David Berceli after years of researching and observing traumatised communities across Africa and the Middle East. The technique is based on the premise that our bodies, like those of other mammals, are wired to tremor when subjected to stress and trauma.
According to Berceli, this instinct to shake when frightened or stressed is our natural way of releasing the charge that the rush of stress chemicals causes in the body. However, we have been taught to suppress our shaking mechanism, which is perceived as a sign of weakness or being “out of control”. As a result, the accumulation of stress toxins in the body causes both physical and emotional discomfort and, over time, disease.
How does TRE help children?
Dr Melanie Salmon, a medical doctor, Gestalt psychotherapist and TRE practitioner (trained by Berceli himself) is at the forefront of the TRE movement in South Africa. She has trained many practitioners to facilitate TRE and has helped make South Africa the largest TRE-providing country in the world. Having conducted outcomes-based research at the SOS Children’s Village and the Chrysalis Academy in Cape Town, she has found that even children who present with ADD and ADHD or whose nervous systems have been severely compromised by foetal alcohol syndrome, are able to heal through TRE.
According to Salmon, children’s brains and nervous systems are very vulnerable to stress, especially in the early years when their brains are growing and setting down neural pathways. “If the child is exposed to stress during those early formative years, then he doesn’t develop the resilience to handle stress later on and becomes more vulnerable to stress,” says Salmon.
This made sense to me in light of my son’s traumatic birth, though Salmon was quick to point out that his actual birth experience and the short time he spent in ICU would not have made the difference to his stress resilience. It was likely to be the ongoing stress that he picked up from us during his first year (as a result of our worries over his uncertain future) that would have compromised his nervous system even more.
However, Salmon is confident that once the damage is done, there is a very real possibility for healing with TRE, one that I witnessed first-hand with my own child.
I turned to Wendy Scurr to help my son. Scurr, who has 25 years’ experience working in the area of learner support in schools, runs a flourishing independent practice in Cape Town using TRE to help stressed children and parents. Through her work she has observed time and again how children who struggle in the school environment, either socially or academically, are those whose nervous systems are unable to handle stress and operate from a place of “fight or flight”.
Scurr has had great success with children with ADD and ADHD, especially those on Ritalin or Concerta and also teenagers who lack self-confidence or have become increasingly susceptible to peer and social pressures. One of the most obvious benefits she sees is the child’s enhanced ability to learn as a result of becoming calmer, more confident and happy.
“Counselling and medication serve only to temporarily deal with the symptoms,” says Scurr. “While the child’s body is experiencing an ongoing state of fear, little learning, if any, takes place.”
My son attended sessions with Scurr over an eight-week period. Each session began with a sequence of simple exercises, which stretched and gently fatigued his muscles. The exercise routine served to start the process of balancing his nervous system and bringing a feeling of calm to his body.
During and after this period, I noticed a marked change in his behaviour, the most noteworthy of which was a fluid transition to his new school and eventually the desire to get a pet – a dog no less. Scurr says: “Children heal remarkably quickly and they are keen to do TRE at home as the exercises are simple and fun.”
Most nights before he goes to bed, I encourage my son (now six) to do some TRE. There is never a problem with motivation. He always readily agrees, knowing that it’s something that makes him feel relaxed and happy and helps him to shake off the experiences of the day. Within a short space of time he has learnt a self-empowering tool that he will use for the rest of his life, one that is a cheaper and more immediately effective alternative to medication or counselling for the anxiety, stress and trauma he is likely to face as he grows up.
TRE can help children with…
  • anxiety
  • aggressive behaviour
  • poor school performance
  • concentration issues
  • sleep issues
  • temper tantrums
  • bedwetting and nail biting
  • ADD and ADHD
  • grief and loss
  • headaches
TRE resources
  1. For more information about TRE:
  2. To find a provider in your area:
  3. The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process: Transcend Your Toughest Times (Namaste Publising) By David Berceli


Anonymous wrote 3 years 17 weeks ago

Thank you so much for this article. I'm a counsellor working with a child who experienced trauma due to a recurring tumour on the brain and operations.

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