By Frances Ward
Reg. Addiction/ Trauma Therapist
“Just one more drink”
“I’ll stop tomorrow”
“I’m just so stressed”
“I need something to deal with the pain and anxiety”
In South Africa’s diverse population, many people abuse substances or alcohol. For some, chronic stress due to poverty, lack of safety, and other environmental factors lead to the internal need to dull feelings. For others, drinking and taking drugs may have started out as curiosity.
Addiction is a pathological relationship to any mood altering substance or behaviour. A person continues to use, despite growing negative consequences which impacts their life and those around them.
Trauma is any experience that overwhelms one’s normal coping mechanisms. The experience or perception of helplessness defines the incident as traumatic. The body perceives trauma in the same way whether it is the result of abuse, neglect, an accident, chronic criticism, bullying, a medical operation or chronic stress.
Addiction is traumatic. Being around an addict is traumatic. Therefore when treating addiction, it is imperative to treat the trauma itself and to offer a skill that develops resilience to future stresses.
Traditionally addicts book into rehabilitation centres where they receive medical detoxifications and therapy with goals such as teaching relapse prevention and offering an introduction to the 12 steps in NA. But addicts still struggle to stay sober in the real world and often relapse due to stress, particularly as many addicts return to the same environment where either substance abuse is rife or similar stresses are still existent.
Having worked for over a decade in the addiction recovery field after specializing in the UK and SA, I noticed that therapy could often overwhelm addicts who weren’t used to expressing their feelings. Working through past traumas was often avoided and when confronted met with much anguish. Many times too, the group program of NA was avoided, as being around others was too difficult for newcomers still experiencing anxiety. A different approach was needed to help addicts release the pain of the past and to gain practical self empowering tools to help them deal with stress and ultimately to help stay sober.
In 2010 whilst working in a private Cape Town rehabilitation centre, I attended a workshop where I participated in TRE- Tension Releasing Exercises. Two years later I’d become a trained TRE provider
A brief History of TRE
TRE was developed by trauma specialist Dr David Berceli to reduce the impact of traumatic experiences and stress on the body. While working in war zones he noticed that the human body instinctually contracted and shook during traumatic experiences. In stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) is turned on, the brain releases certain chemicals and hormones into the body to give it the energy it needs to either fight or flee. When we don’t release this charge, it stays in the body and can become toxic, manifesting physically and psychologically. These uncomfortable sensations in the body are what a person may begin to seek relief from, setting up the chain of addiction.
Shaking is not a new phenomenon: many cultures around the world such as the San, Inuit, and Navajo, practice it as part of healing, spiritual rituals. In other religious practices such as Christianity’s speaking of the tongues shaking is seen. Eastern traditions embrace shaking too such as in Chi Qong and Kundalini Yoga. Within the scientific world vibrational medicine has been used successfully to treat injuries. In the last 20 years other somatic based therapies have come about e.g. Somatic Experiencing, Bioenergetic psychotherapy. This all indicates the historical value of “tremoring”.
TRE involves seven simple exercises that stress and stretch the body’s core muscles, thus evoking a natural shaking mechanism- a response of the Nervous System. As the pattern of muscular tension in the body changes due to the release, integration occurs allowing the brain to establish a new neural pattern related to relaxation. Endorphins are released and restore the individual to their natural state of bio-chemical balance.
In contrast to the trembling that one can sometimes experience during fear or illness, the muscular movement evoked by TRE is both self-generated and self-controlled. It is mostly experienced without disturbance. It is seen as a helpful, evolutionary useful tool of de – stressing the organism. On certain occasions strong emotions can be experienced as the tremors release tightly held tension patterns. Clients are taught how to safely allow such experiences through self regulation.
Although there is a need for further evidenced based research, TRE is consistently reported globally to leave individuals feeling revitalised and restored, often quickly. A reduction in anxiety, muscle tension and burnout has been reported along with an overall improvement in well being. Interestingly many people report feeling more able to bond socially and to connect to spiritual deities. This is very useful for addicts as they reintegrate into society and into programs such as NA in which a power greater than oneself is suggested.
My experience as an Addiction/ Trauma Therapist
In the rehabilitation centres my clients began to report similar things. Clients repeatedly were excited about attending TRE groups. Not only did my clients look forward to the TRE groups, but sought the relaxed effect created in TRE – this time a natural high.
After TRE groups clients visibly look softer, calmer and report feeling less anxious and less agitated. Counsellors who work with the clients after TRE consistently describe them to be more grounded and more in touch with emotions. Even clients still detoxing report feeling physically better after TRE. Some clients have stated directly after TRE:
“I haven’t laughed like that since I was a child”
“I feel so much better – I haven’t cried like that in years”
“Something feels likes it’s shifted”
“I was craving at the start of the session – that’s gone now”
“I don’t feel the withdrawals as badly”
“Something feels like its released”
“I felt like I could let go”
These comments suggest that TRE changes the way a person feels. This is highly valuable for addicts, as relapse often occurs as a result of feeling powerless to strong feelings and cravings. TRE gives addicts a practical self help tool that changes the way they are feeling and thinking. If practised regularly changes in attitude and behaviours can be seen moving away from automatic reactions to more regulated responses. Clients learn to let go safely, learning to trust their body again and to stay present for longer. There is less need to distract themselves as they had done in the past with obsessive compulsive behaviours. Being present allows them to engage with life in a more real manner.
Integrating back into society is a challenge addicts face. Real life stress often causes distress which can lead to relapse. Including TRE in the recovery process is now strongly recommended to teach clients how to destress themselves.
I run a successful private practice where clients see me individually for therapy and TRE or join my weekly TRE group. Usually after about 6 sessions the body will know how to do TRE. As long as it is done in a safe, regulated way it can be used forever. Reports indicate the more regularly TRE is practised the greater the ability to self regulate and maintain control of one’s life, something an addict has lost control of.
I have found TRE to be one of the most powerful transformational tools I’ve come across particularly as it can be used in large groups. This is a brilliant solution to addressing a population of many traumatised, stressed people often in the grips of addiction.
Could TRE be the answer to breaking this cycle of abuse?
It is safe practice to learn TRE from a TRE provider. It is advised to have an assessment and to be cleared medically before practising TRE. Further research is required into the long term benefits of using TRE with addicts. Browse the other articles on this website for more information on TRE or visit my webpage www.franceswardtherapy.co.za