Could stress be shaken off? Not with a magic wand, but with your entire body, in any direction that feels like moving. Whenever I introduce shaking in my yoga classes (sometimes after a vigorous sequence when I sense folks need a break), people will visibly release their grown-up armor and cut loose with goofy movement. (Been on the screen too long? Try it yourself, now, if you’re in a relatively private setting: Start with a discrete body part – a hand, a leg — and then gradually include your entire body. Gently bounce up and down or shake sidewise, as you like, at your own speed. Put on music if you want the shake to include some rattle and rolls. After a few minutes, be still with your eyes closed and notice what your body feels like after shaking. Can you feel your heartbeat? Has there been any shifts in your energy? your mood? the quality or velocity of your thoughts?)
Shaking can help the body discharge stress hormones, muscular tension, and the constricted breathing that is part of our body’s instinctive and natural response to stress, so that we’ll be prepared to get ourselves out of danger or fight like hell. Animals – from rabbits to dogs to polar bears – shake themselves off after anything from rough play to a traumatic encounter. Humans have unfortunately “evolved” to let our hyperactive minds call the shots. Say something crappy happens to us – a power struggle with a colleague, a fight with a spouse, a not-so-hot diagnosis. The stress response launches in our bodies, and embeds itself in our nervous system and in our fascia — and thanks to our minds, we’re left processing (or over-processing, as the case might be), creating new stories about ourselves and others. The story might be worked and reworked, but we may not feel quite right unless we discharge the tension.
The idea of shaking to release stress and trauma is not new. Peter Levine, a therapist who created Somatic Experiencing, wrote about shaking as way the body releases traumatic shock in his seminal work on healing trauma “Walking the Tiger” published 20 years ago. And Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, teaches “shaking and dancing” as part of his training to health professionals and communities affected by trauma around the world.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued to learn how to take that “feel-good-after-making-my-butt-feel-like-jelly feeling further. Could more structured forms of shaking discharge long-ago trauma that I’ve processed the hell out of – in therapy, in conversation with close friends, in my years of writing practice, in my work with meditation and shamanism and energy modalities – but remains somehow “stuck” in my neurophysiology?
A few weeks ago, I went to Yogaville in central Virginia to experience Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), which activate a natural reflex mechanism of shaking that releases muscular tension and calms down the nervous system. The system was developed by Dr. David Burcelli, a trauma specialist who came upon the idea after being in several bombings in Beirut, and connecting it with previous work done by Levine and others.
The technique itself is super simple. You either do a series of exercises and lie on the floor, or do yoga and then lie on the floor, and then do an exercise that begins to make your legs wobbly. Once the trembling in the legs has begun, you can adjust your position so that you’re comfortable, and your legs will continue to shake until you extend them. The suggestion is to just do a bit at a home, gently allowing tension to release. (This start-low-and-go-slow approach is what Levine calls “titration,” borrowing a term from chemistry, which is recommended so as to not overwhelm the system.) I’ve been practicing a few times a week at home, usually for 15-20 minutes after I finish yoga. It’s been interesting to note how I’ve been responding to what otherwise would normally cause some anxiety – a minor fender bender, a client who sends me a 200-page document I need to review by day’s end, the everyday stresses of too-much-to-do-not-enough-time.
I’m still not sure if my leg trembling is releasing old stress, but I have noticed a slight-improved version of me: a bit calmer, a bit more collected in chaotic moments such as when a bus ran a red light and leaned on his horn so I could jump backwards out of his way. I’ve been fascinated enough to sign up for another training in TRE and will let you know how that goes in future newsletters. In the meantime, I’m putting on my dancing shoes — hope to shake things off with you soon!