Turning Stress and Trauma into Positive Change

Cheetah and Springbok A herd of springbok grazes peacefully in the Bushveld. Suddenly, the wind shifts, carrying with it a new, but familiar scent. The springboks sense danger in the air and become instantly tensed to a hair trigger of alertness. They sniff, look, and listen carefully for a few moments, but when no threat appears, the animals return to their grazing, relaxed yet vigilant. Seizing the moment, a stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery. As if it were one organism, the herd springs quickly toward a protective thicket. One young springbok trips for a split second, and then recovers. But it is too late. In a blur, the cheetah lunges towards its intended victim, and the chase is on at a blazing 100 km per hour. At the moment of contact, the springbok falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death1.

The springbok has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Physiologists call it the “immobility” or “freezing” response which is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when facing a threat. The other two, fight or flight, are usually more familiar to us as human beings.

The immobility response serves two functions. When the cheetah tears the springbok apart with its claws and teeth, it won’t experience pain while being in this “frozen” state. And secondly, the immobility response is also a survival strategy. The cheetah might drag its prey to a safer place before eating it. During this time, the springbok could awaken from its frozen state and use an unguarded moment to make a hasty escape.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a shocking or stressful experience that occurs in a state of helplessness or absence of control. This can include events like natural disasters, exposure to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss, surgical procedures or birth. Newer definitions of trauma however also emphasize the cumulative effects of life’s “little traumas”. Continuous daily stress for example can reach a tipping point where we might feel overwhelmed and helpless, almost “frozen” in the situation. These conditions can lead to the same symptoms which are often displayed in post traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety, insomnia, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

Thinking back to the springbok: if it had escaped the cheetah, would it have experienced trauma? The answer is no. The springbok would have returned to its herd and moved on with its life as if nothing happened. A similar event happening to a human being might have had serious psychological consequences. So what is the difference between humans and animals in dealing with stressful and traumatic events?

Why humans suffer from trauma

As human beings, we share certain parts of our brain with other mammals and reptiles. Those parts comprise the so-called “reptilian brain” which drives instinctual responses. When we are faced with what is perceived as an inescapable or overwhelming threat, humans use the same immobility response as the springbok. We don’t have conscious control over this reaction, it is involuntarily activated by the reptilian brain. Imagine driving around a bend in your car while suddenly, a big truck directly speeds towards you; or imagine you closely witness an accident. Unless trained otherwise, we usually first freeze.

In this state, our internal nervous system is highly active and energized, while the outer body is immobile. This creates a forceful turbulence inside the body. Subsequent trauma is not caused by the event itself, but stems from the frozen residue of this energy that has not been discharged, but instead remains trapped in the nervous system. Symptoms develop when we cannot complete the process of moving into, through and out of the immobility or freezing state. Symptoms are the organism’s way of dealing with the residual energy.

SpringbokIn contrast to us, animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy after the threatening event, they literally shake it off, and seldom develop adverse symptoms. Children up until the age of seven are often still able to use this natural mechanism: being threatened, they will get a fright, shake until they feel better, and then carry on with their lives. This natural mechanism has however become socially unacceptable in most cultures. Over centuries of acculturation we have suppressed this organic inbuilt function, since we defined shaking as a pathology or weakness.

What we can do

Sometimes we try to discharge the residual energies in dysfunctional ways, for example by drinking alcohol or taking medication, keeping us in a viscous cycle and aggravating problems. Taking into account that the reactions caused by trauma are controlled by the reptilian brain and not susceptible to conscious will, even talking about the event and working through the emotions may lead to improvements, but not dissolve the trauma itself.

Based on these findings, Dr. David Berceli developed Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) which re-activate the natural response to stress. The so-called neurogenic tremors kick in automatically after certain muscle groups have been stretched and lightly tensed. The shaking then allows the autonomic nervous system to return to a balanced state. These exercises are easy to learn and dissolve the trauma on a physical level by taping in the body’s own healing resources.

The Hopeful Message of Trauma

As David Berceli puts it: “The human animal is designed to experience, endure and survive traumatic episodes. If we did not possess this ability, the human species would have become extinct shortly after it was born. This natural ability to let go of and resolve post traumatic reactions is genetically encoded in us to complete one process and begin something new as a part of our unending cycle of evolution.”

When we are stressed or traumatised, we feel overwhelmed. However, this state contains an immense opportunity to leave our old ways of thinking behind and grow into an improved existence. Nelson Mandela is a South African role-model for how immense stress can be turned into a higher morality and being. When mobilized correctly, the same energy that created the trauma, can be transformed and utilised for positive growth.

TRE and Positive Psychology

The insights above call for stress and trauma interventions that integrate both body and mind. FMRI imaging of the brain has proven that the brain is constantly rewiring itself according to the messages received from the body. When the body learns to return to a homoeostasis through TRE, we gain a new openness as well as powerful insights on which we can build to make positive and lasting changes in our lives.

Melanie Silberbauer (TRE Level 2, Sole-Reiki, massage and energy balancing practitioner) and I have designed a course that combines the benefits of TRE exercises (body) and Positive Psychology Coaching (mind).

The course will take 8 weeks in total and include 6 integrated TRE sessions with a focus on Positive Psychology as well as 2 one-on-one coaching sessions.

Benefits of the course

  • The TRE exercises can be used at home after the course. The changes and insights of each participant will be accompanied with journalling, group discussions and coaching, to ensure lasting change.

  • The course addresses, connects and aligns body and mind: TRE accesses the instinctual, reptilian part of the brain and unlocks the energy stored in the body by stressful and traumatic experiences. Positive Psychology Coaching builds on this openness for change, accessing the rational, human part of the brain (neo-cortex) by helping participants to make their insights and realisations conscious and to implement concrete, positive steps for change.
  • After releasing the physical tension, we look and build on what what is right, rather than wrong in our lives. “We are much more likely to heal from the effects of trauma by creating a positive framework”. (Peter A. Levine, “Waking the Tiger”). This course is therefore not about looking back onto trauma and re-living it, but about shifting into a more authentic and hopeful self that is emerging forward, and focusing on how we can foster positive emotions in our daily lives.

The course will start in May at the Mayfair Cottage in Somerset West, please contact me or Melanie for more information.



1 The theoretical contents of this blog are based on Dr. Peter A. Levine’s work and his book “Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma”, 1997, North Atlantic Books, California.

Image from Stockvault User 2happy


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1 Response to Turning Stress and Trauma into Positive Change

  1. Christian says:

    Interesting. I always wondered about that “freeze moment” when I saw something like it (more in TV than in real life, though)

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