Have you ever had a sudden shock, stress or attack of nerves and found yourself shaking uncontrollably? It’s happened to me twice: the first time aged 11 in my Grade 3 violin exam, when my bow bounced up and down so much that I mutilated Faure’s Pavane. Twenty years later and in labour, I shook so violently that it felt like I was strapped to a washing machine on spin.
Shaking is a natural response to extreme stress – whether it’s an actual life or death situation such as giving birth, or a perceived one: “if I don’t get Grade 3, my mum will kill me”.
But it's never occurred to me that shaking can be more than a sign of abject terror. It turns out that it can actually be a good thing and is gaining traction as a form of therapy. Rather than bottling up our stress, in the words of Taylor Swift, we can just “shake it off”.
In LA, Oprah’s self-help guru Gabrielle Bernstein has whole rooms of people doing a Kundalini yoga technique which involves shaking your hands in the air for three minutes (her track of choice is Florence and The Machine’s Shake It Out).
In Qi Gong, gentle shaking is a way of transfroming stress into vital energy.
I’m already a fan of Katie Brindle’s Hayou Method, a health and beauty system based on traditional Chinese Medicine. Watch her (in the pink top) in the Qi Gong whole body shaking video below - she makes it look a lot of fun.
But what I’m fascinated by are claims that a specific shaking therapy called TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) can radically transform the way we deal with stress, particularly old and accumulated baggage. We can all feel how stress creates patterns of muscular tension in the body – it might go to your stomach, your jaw or your shoulders, for example. It can lead to pain (back pain being a prime example) and have a knock-on effect on our behaviour – anger, road rage or even something more serious such as turning the stress inwards by self-harming. TRE is said to work by rewiring our nervous system, setting us free from those default stress patterns, which were set up to protect us. It’s been referred to as ‘trauma-proofing’. We can’t stop difficult life events, but they don’t have to break us.
Shaking helps regulate your fight or flight response
Can shaking really do all this? It sounds a bit bonkers, but there’s nothing woo-woo about it, as I learned when I booked in for a session with Steve Haines, a chiropractor by background and the UK’s leading TRE practitioner. He practises ‘controlled shaking’ at London’s triyoga centre and privately in North London.
"TRE is a simple set of exercises to help reset the reflexes and habits in the central nervous system," he explains. "When we have tension and trauma, the old parts of the brain become stuck in defensive strategies, making us tight and contracted prepared for fight-or-flight or freezing the body. TRE is a safe and easy way of releasing tension and waking up your body."
It works by deliberately activating that involuntary shaking that we’ve all experienced at times of terror, to discharge stress and balance the nervous system – a kind of factory reset, if you like. It’s what all mammals do, except us because we’ve learned to control it. We’ve all seen antelopes escape the jaws of a predator, pick themselves up, have a good shake and then act like it never happened. They’re over it. Dogs shake too to calm themselves. We’re the only species that walks around bottling it all up, preferring to stay "braced against life." says Steve. We just need to learn to be a bit more ‘mammal’.
There are around 40 TRE practitioners in the UK, many trained by Steve; a session is not a million miles away from a yoga class. Steve has taught more than 1,500 to shake and most commonly they come to him with for help with conditions such as pain, anxiety and chronic fatigue. "But I’ve stopped being surprised at how many simple cases of back or shoulder pain I see. Pain such as this often originates in experiences of being overwhelmed in the past."
A TRE class at triyoga
"People will tell me that they have relationship or family problems or their job isn’t great – it’s that life stress that lays us down and it often starts in childhood," he says.
"For example, if when you were little, your stepfather shouted at you, your reaction might have been to hunch into a ball with your neck and shoulders around your ears. This sets up a pathway for stress in your body. Any further stresses then make a beeline for your neck and back." If your default stress pattern involves tightening of the diaphragm it can lead to stress-related stomach problems such as IBS or constipation, he adds.
I’m a classic case of someone whose stress causes back pain and I’ve come to see whether Steve can help me shake it out of my system. Four years ago, the shock of my mum’s sudden death from a stroke at age just 69, broke my heart – I actually felt it go as the muscles behind my heart in my middle back suddenly went into a spasm and I could barely move. Now, whenever things get too much, the heart area is where my stress goes and my back and neck seize up for days.
I’m expecting Steve to ask me to do a kind of St Vitus Dance and am prepared to look silly. But I don't actually have to do anything, just let the shakes come. He asks me whether I have anything specific I want to release – yes, my back! – and he’s particularly interested in my two labours as birth experiences can hold a lot of unresolved trauma, although that’s not the case for me.
First off, I have to feel safe, and Steve asks me to familiarise myself with the room and with him so my nervous system is relaxed and not on alert. We then do a few preparatory exercises such as wall squats to tire out the muscles, so that I’m less in control and the shakes can come more easily.
You just let the shakes come
Then to the shaking part. I lie on my back in butterfly pose, soles of feet together, knees bent out to the side and every couple of minutes bring my knees towards each other inch by inch and hold. Soon, I feel my inner thigh muscles engage and there’s a slight tremble. This is good. These are my shakes coming out. As my knees come higher the shaking becomes stronger and I can feel the tremors travelling up my spine. After ten minutes, when my knees are now almost vertical, the shaking is hard to ignore and has reached my shoulders – I’m wobbling and jerking almost comically. It’s not unpleasant or stressful; I’m totally relaxed and simply letting the shakes happen, as though I’m on some cosmic Power Plate that’s doing all the work for me.
Five to 15 minutes of shaking are enough for a first timer and to come out of it, Steve tells me to slide my feet away from me to lie flat, take a couple of minutes lying down just to integrate the experience and relax before sitting up. I feel great.
You start to change your 'stress script'
But what the hell just happened? Steve explains that I’m starting to change my stress script. "Shaking is a reboot that allows new safe stories to pass between the mind and body, telling it that you don’t need to armour yourself in the old way." Effectively I’m saying to my body, "all that tensing up around back and shoulders you’ve been doing is old news. It might have started in childhood when you were that little girl whose stepfather shouted at her, and yes it became acute when your mum died, but you really don’t need that kind of armour, especially if you're just having a bad day at work."
All that extra muscle effort I've been making to protect myself is not useful any more. "You can let it go," says Steve.
To continue the work, I can do shaking at home – even a couple of minutes at the end of my meditation every day will help. Steve points me in the direction of a TRE app by the originator of the method, David Berceli. It has video demos of what we’ve just done, as well as some great background as to how TRE started.
Berceli, an American psychologist and aid worker, was working in the Far East and Africa in conflict zones in the late 1990s and noticed how shaking was a universal response to trauma. He devised a simple ‘body up’ way for people of all cultures to let go of the stresses of war and natural disasters – what we now call PTSD. It was a simple, cheap DIY therapy that didn’t rely on talking – i.e. the ‘brain down’ approach (parachuting in legions of psychologists was simply too expensive and often not culturally appropriate). There’s a great picture on the app of a room full of soldiers lying down in combat trousers with their knees up doing their shaking therapy. To find out more check out the video below.
You don’t have to have had a specific trauma to benefit from TRE and indeed many of us don’t know how or why we react to stress in the way we do. The good news is, it doesn’t actually matter. Whether we’re anxious, depressed or overwhelmed, TRE tells us that we’re not mad bad or broken, says Steve, "only that our stress thermostat is turned up too high. But we can turn down the dial for things to work more easily".
Not only that, but we can free up more energy because we're not constantly holding ourselves in brace position. "Living with life or death responses to everyday events is really exhausting," says Steve. "We make all our big muscles work to mobilise us away from danger - our heart works to the maximum, we are breathing quickly. We’re flooded with chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol – to make those muscles work."
He likens it to that tingly feeling you get when you've had too much sugar or coffee and that hangs around your system. "Shaking is a way of helping you discharge that energy – your muscles go from an active high-intensity state to softening very quickly."
It can even have beauty benefits
Stress responses also use up a lot of human RAM and it’s hard to argue with Steve when he asks whether I wouldn’t rather free up that space for something more productive. "That’s energy we can use for our immune system, growth, repair digestion, libido, luscious hair, glowing skin – all those long-term projects that are not useful when running away from a tiger. " Yes please.
Steve advises me to take it easy over the next couple of days, nothing too stimulating, and to be aware that I might have some tender feelings around my mum.
I buy the app for £9.99 and slot in a couple of minutes shaking whenever I can. I love that it’s non-verbal. I don’t have to go over what’s stressing me, which could potentially make me more anxious, but know that I’m letting it go.
Do I think it works? I totally buy into the premise; I believe we’re too much in our heads and not connected enough to our bodies. The popularity of mindfulness, helping us to connect with what’s present rather than old stresses and future worries, would seem to bear that out.
TRE is as yet not much studied . It’s been shown to help with restless leg syndrome (thought to be our natural shakes releasing at night) and one small s tudy on at-risk high school girls in South Africa showed TRE to be one of three therapies that were significantly effective in reducing ‘learner burnout’.
I’m going to persist though; it’s relaxing, it’s easy, it’s mindful, its democratic and it slots nicely into my meditation and yoga practices. It’s very freeing to know that like a piece of bamboo in a storm, I can bend in the face of stress and not break. I don’t have to brace, brace, brace!
Follow Victoria on Instagram at @victoriawoodhall and Steve @stevehaines66
A one-to-one session with Steve costs £80. Find him at www.stevehaines.net . He also runs workshops at triyoga in London. To find a TRE class or practitioner near you go to trecollege.com .