What Are Trauma Release Exercises & Do They Work?
These exercises, which include stretching or visualization, bring you face-to-face with your trauma in an effort to release it. Learn more about how Trauma Release Exercises work and some easy ones to try at home.
By: Sarah Fielding
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
July 18, 2023
Table of Contents
If you’ve been on TikTok lately, you’ve likely seen videos about how to release trauma from your body where people are screaming while moving their muscles. These videos refer to a practice known as Trauma Release Exercises, the trademarked name for activities created by trauma and conflict resolution expert Dr. David Berceli that can help you work through physical, emotional, or psychological trauma. Specifically, Trauma Release Exercises help people control their trauma responses—which can range from panic attacks to fawning.
How Trauma Release Exercise works
So, how do Trauma Release Exercises work? “If a trauma response is a constant alarm, a trauma release exercise is a reset button on the alarm system,” says Ashera DeRosa, a licensed marriage and family therapist working with complex trauma, and founder of Whole Stories Therapy
Dr. Berceli created Trauma Release Exercises and built a training program to teach other clinicians how to implement them in mental healthcare because he believed that people can learn to handle their trauma responses. “We as a species are genetically encoded with the capacity to heal ourselves,” Dr. Berceli said in his book Trauma Releasing Exercises. “If we did not possess this ability, our species would have become extinct shortly after we were born.” Instead of continually experiencing trauma responses, Trauma Release Exercises can provide at least temporary relief, and in some cases promote long-term healing.
Now, if you’ve seen those videos and wonder how Trauma Release Exercises work, they “involve a sequence of exercises that help activate the body’s natural tremors. These exercises can vary but often involve gentle stretches and movements that target specific muscle groups,” says Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery. Curious about trying Trauma Release Exercises for yourself? Here’s what you need to know about their benefits and how to do them.
Trauma Release Exercises to try
There are a wide range of Trauma Release Exercises that can be beneficial to release unresolved trauma. As you test them out, you might find some are more impactful to you than others. While a mental health professional can help you determine which Trauma Release Exercises to try, here are a few examples to get you started.
One of the most common types of Trauma Release Exercises is stretching, which can relieve muscle tension. These stretches might include sitting in a hip squat to release chronic stress or doing wall sits to lessen deep tension.
The Spiral Technique is another common Trauma Release Exercise. According to DeRosa, the steps are as follows:
- Close your eyes, visualize your body, and think of the traumatic memory.
- Pay attention to your body’s response, such as your heartbeat and the state of your stomach.
- Imagine a spiral turning in that area of your body, and pay attention to how fast or slow it’s turning.
- Use your mind to push the spiral in the opposite direction — a potentially challenging feat.
- Pay attention to your breath as you work at this.
- When you are ready, draw your awareness back to the world around you and examine how your body feels.
- Open your eyes, then focus on your breath and on maintaining any stillness or safety that you have gained.
Picture something peaceful or loving to take the place of your released trauma at the end of your exercise, adds DeRosa.
What are the benefits of Trauma Release Exercises?
As anyone who has experienced trauma can tell you, it’s not a quick thing to get over and can lead to regular instances of poor mental health. Trauma Release Exercises can help you work through and resolve the way you respond to trauma. “When we experience trauma, our bodies activate a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, leading to increased muscle tension,” says Hong. “This tension is often held in the body long after the traumatic event has passed, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Trauma Release Exercises can help individuals regulate their nervous system by activating these tremors, which release tension stored in the body.”
What conditions can Trauma Release Exercises help treat?
Trauma Release Exercises can benefit people living with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and borderline personality, says DeRosa. Among these mental health conditions, Trauma Release Exercises are commonly recommended for PTSD. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, but it is a more prevalent diagnosis than many realize. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, between 13% and 43% of girls will experience at least one trauma, and 3% to 15% of them will develop PTSD. An estimated 14% to 43% of boys will experience at least one trauma, and 1% to 6% of them will develop PTSD. Young people might develop PTSD after experiencing neglect, school shootings, or a form of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse — among other events.
However, a person might also find Trauma Release Exercises helpful even if they don’t have a formal mental health diagnosis. “I have used Trauma Release Exercises to support people in moving forward from bad breakups, domestic violence, affairs, sexual assaults, and active shooter situations,” says DeRosa. “They can be useful at all ages, from children navigating their parent’s divorce to adults who have experienced war, car crashes, or natural disasters.”
DeRosa emphasizes that trauma is inherently personal: an individual decides whether or not an event was traumatic to them. Another person might have experienced the same event or something society deems “worse” and not feel traumatized, but that doesn’t take away from or invalidate the initial person’s response, she says.
How to try Trauma Release Exercises at home
The most important thing to remember before, during, and after a Trauma Release Exercise is your well-being. Preferably you would conduct these, at least at first, under the guidance of a mental health professional. However, if that’s not possible, there are steps to take before starting Trauma Release Exercises at home.
The most important thing is to have an emotional safety plan in place. This might mean making your parents or another trusted adult aware that you’re going to try these exercises out or telling a friend you might call them if you feel overwhelmed. The plan should also detail signs that signal a need for a break from the exercises and how you plan to recoup after your Trauma Release Exercises. “Aftercare could look like having a familiar, light, non-triggering show cued up to watch afterward, along with a bit of comfort food,” says DeRosa. “Knowing exactly what will happen in the show while eating something that feels comfortable and familiar can help your body establish that it is safe and cared for.”
Remember before you start and throughout the process to trust your gut. Today might not be the day to try a Trauma Release Exercise, and that’s alright. You might not be in the correct headspace or have appropriate support around you. DeRosa recommends asking yourself what changes are necessary to make you feel safe enough to explore Trauma Release Exercises.
It’s also critical to keep in mind that though you might experience a tremor, involuntary shaking in one or more parts of your body. This is a “natural response” to releasing your trauma and should not harm you in any way, says Hong. It’s a symptom of your release. Remember this as you move through the exercises to maintain a feeling of comfort and safety. People sometimes do multiple Trauma Release Exercises per- day, but it’s critical to go at your own pace.
“Remember, it’s not a race. It’s not useful to try to pressure yourself to heal faster,” says DeRosa. “Being patient and extending yourself some grace is going to be far more productive. Trust your gut and follow your own lead.”
How Charlie Health can help
Speaking with a mental health professional can be incredibly beneficial when navigating Trauma Release Exercises. Charlie Health’s intensive outpatient program (IOP) has experts that can support you in exploring different Trauma Release Exercises and determining additional coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma you hold. Learn more about how the IOP works and available resources here.