What is the difference between stress and trauma?
Many of us are unaware of the little stressors and triggers that send our bodies into defensive responses every day and therefor think that TRE is only for people who have experienced life threatening trauma or have PTSD. However, any event that is stressful that we don’t fully recover from to a completely calm and relaxed state (think of the body of a sleeping child, soft and totally relaxed) effectively becomes stored and held as tension in the body as a ‘mini trauma.’
In time, these unresolved mini traumas and stresses, whether physical, emotional or psychological in origin build up and result in tension, holding and eventually pain and a range of chronic health conditions as evident in our ever stiffening bodies and chronic health problems in the western world. It’s often not until we have a deep massage that we discover what previously felt like a reasonably pain free and healthy body is actually full of tension, knots and holding we were not even aware of. TRE provides a mechanism whereby anyone who has been ‘wound up’ whether through stress or trauma is able to ‘unwind’ their body through it’s natural mechanism of shaking and tremoring – leaving their body (and then their mind) in a more calm, relaxed and grounded state.
Fight & flight v’s Freeze & flop:
Recent research (called Polyvagal theory as developed by Dr Stephen Porgess) has shown the bodies defence mechanisms are associated with 3 main neurological states:
- social engagement – whereby our bodies are calm and relaxed and we are open and engaged with whatever we are experiencing
- fight or flight – we have mobilised our energy to flee or fight an event – (not very successful if the stressor is emotional or psychological in nature!)
- freeze or flop – if we are unable to flee or fight the stressor (especially if it is an emotional experience within us) our bodies begin to shut down and collapse
What these 3 primary states show us, is that unless we are calm, relaxed and engaged like a young child with relaxed bodies and minds in a state of engagement, curiosity and learning, we are effectively in a defensive body response of either our fight or flight mode or a freeze or flop mode.
Most people are usually aware when we are wound up tight in fight or flight mode because we can feel the intensity of our emotional responses of anger and rage or anxiety and fear. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are then able to calm ourselves down though, as it often takes hours and even days to get over events that ‘trigger’ us into these responses. As these fight and flight states are automated responses generated by the body generally outside our conscious control, we therefor often feel powerless to calm these automatic physical and emotional responses.
In freeze or flop mode however, most of us are unaware that we are even in a defensive response because the very aim of this body based response is to make us unaware of what we are feeling in relation to an overwhelming event. Effectively, when we are in fight of flight mode we are still ok, surviving (though we may be terrified) and we are doing something about what is happening – we are mobilising energy and taking action. Trauma really begins at the point where our bodies experience overwhelm and begin to shut us down in order to protect us from something that we can no longer overcome by fighting or flighting. This is often the process we use to survive emotional or psychological stress and trauma and especially if the experience we are defending against is what it feels like inside our bodies.
Consider that claustrophobia ultimately isn’t really a fear of being in confined spaces, as much as a fear of what it feels like ‘inside my body’ when I am in a confined space.
What this means is that in response to stress and trauma, our bodies have two very different ways of slowing us down – one of them is real calmness in a state of social engagement, while the other is a freeze response where our systems are ‘closing down’ rather than calming down which leads to a whole host of chronic health conditions and diseases experienced in the western world.
‘Calming down’ v’s ‘Closing down’:
At any point, our bodies and neurophysiology is basically in one of the 3 primary states: we are either calm and relaxed, we are in fight of flight mode or we are in a freeze or flop mode (collapse/surrender/give up response)
When are in our social engagement response, we are calm and relaxed in both body and mind, we are healthy and vibrant, peaceful and balance yet fully engaged in a curious state with our experience both of the world around us as well as our internal state. Obviously this isn’t something many of us experience much of the time!
Fight of flight mode tends to me much more obvious because we are wound up and mobilising energy and we often experience our emotional responses such as anxiety, tension, nervousness, irritation, frustration, anger, fear, rage and panic.
Freeze and flop mode however is much more sneaky – if we have been unsuccessful at overcoming the perceived threat through our fight and flight response of being ‘wound up,’ our bodies then enter a state of being ‘bound up’ instead! While we often think of this freeze response as a closing down it is really more of a shutting ‘up’ as internally our systems are still running on overdrive while an older more primitive part of our brain locks everything down on the outside at the same time – akin to driving your car at maximum speed with the ‘emergency’ hand brake full on.
Part of the freeze and flop mechanism is designed specifically so we don’t have to feel or experience overwhelming experience or emotions, (we don’t want to feel what it is like to be eaten by the proverbial sabre tooth tiger for example) so our bodies are flooded with neuro-chemcials such as opioids so we are not even aware of the stress, tension or trauma we are experiencing. In daily life, this means we are often stressed or ‘shut down’ without even being aware of it.
A simple example of this freeze response is what we do if we are in a situation where we are nervous but don’t want anyone else to know – such as public speaking or performing. Our bodies are winding up to flee the situation, but because we over-ride it the fight and flight energy continues to build to the point our bodies are (naturally) ready to tremor to release some of this excess defensive charge. Instead of allowing this natural dissipation of this excess defensive charge through allowing the tremors to shake and tremble us, we suck it up, bury it down and hold it all together by stiffening our muscles against this natural urge to release and end up ‘bound up’ with all the extra energy inside us.
To the audience (and eventually even to ourselves once we have habitually used this unconscious mechanism enough times !!) we look calm and relaxed on the outside, while on the inside our bodies are like engines running in top gear – stress!!!! – or effectively a mini trauma. Now this isn’t necessarily a problem of itself and can infact even help us to grow, evolve and even become stronger if we are able to then integrate this expeience and release that defensive energy that was bound up inside us.
Unfortunately for many of us we have lost or suppressed this natural release mechanism (the tremors) for a whole range of reasons and end up living in a habituated state of mild freeze with chronic ‘holding tension’ in our bodies.
In response to stress and trauma, while there are 2 very different ways that both slow down our bodies and minds, our organs and nervous systems, our heart rate and our breathing, one is truly calming us down while the other is actually ‘closing us down’ resulting in the range of chronic disorders associated with low blood pressure, low energy and low mood in the western world.
How this information is relevant to TRE
When we come to realise that stress and trauma at their most basic level are simply experienced as tension, we also come to realise that the most powerful, effective and efficient way to unwind chronic stress and trauma is by simply releasing this tension from the body itself. As the natural way our bodies to release this defensive tension is through shaking and tremoring – just like a dog in a thunderstorm or a rabbit of guinea pig you may hold in your hand, TRE provides us a safe, efficient and effective process to deliberately invoke these neurogenic tremors in a gentle and controlled way to assist with our continual return to a more calm relaxed and grounded state.
When we come to understand that while we may look calm on the outside while in a freeze or flop response to stress or trauma (and may even even think we are calm ourselves!) most of us are not truly calm, relaxed, curious and socially engaged but rather are operating at some level out of our habituated freeze and flop responses as shown in our ever tightening and stiffening or eventually collapsing bodies, (and therefor also minds.)
TRE is not just for trauma and it is not just for Post Traumatic Stress. TRE is for anyone who finds they get charged up in response to the stresses of daily life by getting irritated, frustrated, anxious or worried who would benefit from unwinding these emotional body based responses to experience greater peace, calmness and freedom in their lives – which basically includes all of us!
When we come to know the tension in our bodies is a sign we are not truly calmed down but instead are ‘closed down’ instead, we open the doorway to begin to re-experience the fullness of life through the release of our chronic and habituated defensive patterns to return ourselves to a state of peace, calm, curiosity and joy that may of us have not experienced since we were young children.