What is Trauma?

“The emotional pain we carry within us isn’t just in our head. It’s also etched into our muscles.”
—Dr. David Berceli, The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process

Woman warped

Stress vs. Trauma

Dr. David Berceli, trauma therapist and creator of TRE®, defines STRESS as any experience that disrupts one’s normal coping mechanisms. The symptoms of stress are temporary. TRAUMA, on the other hand, overwhelms one’s normal coping mechanisms. The symptoms linger long after the traumatic event passes.

On the stress end of the continuum, you might experience a temporary upset stomach when you’re running late for an important meeting. On the trauma end, you might experience PTSD after a natural disaster.

The difference between stress and trauma is the emotional intensity you attach to the event, the degree to which your body physically contracts, and whether or not your nervous system remains activated.

Trauma is an unconscious and instinctual response. Without any thought on our part, changes occur in our brain, hormones and body.

Hard vs. Soft Traumas

Hard traumas are acute, one-time event, such as:

  • living through an earthquake
  • surviving a violent crime
  • being in a car accident
  • witnessing a shooting

Soft traumas are chronic, recurring over an extended period of time, such as:

  • working in a toxic environment
  • being bullied at school
  • living with an abusive partner
  • growing up in an abusive or neglectful family
Boy sad at school

Types of Trauma

1. Vicarious —

  • we are affected by what happens to others we care about

2. Compassion Fatigue

  • We work in a helping profession and need to suppress our emotions to do our job.

3. Cultural —

  • We live in a society or country that collectively experienced a shared trauma (i.e., COVID-19 pandemic).

4. Individual

  • We may experience a horrific event that continues to haunt us years later (i.e., combat soldiers or victims of a violence). We may suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, difficulty concentrating, irritability, rage outbursts, and insomnia (PTSD).

5. Early Developmental

  • We were abused as children emotionally, physically, or sexually.

6. Mass

  • We hear about an event in which thousands of people were harmed (i.e., 9/11 in the US, war in Ukraine).

7. Intergenerational (or Ancestral)

  • We are genetically encoded with our parents’ and grandparents’ (and beyond) traumatic experiences

8. Gestational

  • We are affected by what happens to our mother while we are in utero

9. Religious

  • We grew up in a religious family/faith community that terrified us with a punitive god, told us we were sinful, and threatened us with eternal damnation

10. Systemic

  • We belong to a marginalized group and experience ongoing external oppression (and may have internalized it as well).

“Trauma transcends belief, political affiliation, and life experience.”
—psychologist Dr. Valerie Rein, author of Patriarchy Stress Disorder

Girl upset

Unresolved Trauma Hijacks Our Happiness

If we haven’t processed past traumas, we can experience emotional distress even when nothing life-threatening is happening. How? Something in the present triggers our amygdala — a primitive part of the brain that regulates emotion, memory and our stress response to perceived threats. Our nervous system then kicks in to protect us as if the scary event from the past was happening RIGHT NOW. This happens quickly and without our conscious awareness of its connection to the past.

When we’re triggered like that, our thinking brain wants to make up a story about why we feel the way we do based on what’s happening now. Maybe you’ve thought, “My spouse left the chips out on the counter AGAIN … clearly he doesn’t love me!” or “My boss ignored me in the meeting — I just know she’s going to fire me!”

Then your nervous system goes into high alert. You’ve probably heard of the stress response “F’s” — Fight-Flight-Freeze? A more recent addition is Fawn, which is common for women who protect themselves subconsciously by trying to please and appease others.

Once we’re triggered like that and we respond with our default “F”, we freak out about the false story our mind MADE UP!

It’s a very chaotic and confusing way to live. You may even feel emotionally out of control at times.

Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma

Unresolved trauma and/or extreme stress may also result in:

  • chronic pain — nerve impingements, TMJD, migraines, fibromyalgia, backaches, headaches
  • chronic physical illnesses — high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, GI issues like IBS, sleep apnea, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), diabetic sugar fluctuations
  • chronic mental disorders — anxiety, depression, ADHD, panic attacks, social phobias, PTSD
  • compromised immunity — chronic colds, asthma attacks, premature aging
Girl and her dog
Window to past

Relief from Trauma Is Possible

In Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®), we do not decide which trauma or stressor to let go. In fact, we don’t talk about it at all. Instead we let the body do the work.

Your body decides what to release through neurogenic tremoring, usually starting with superficial tension. Over time, the tremors work their way through the muscle and fascia (layers of connective tissue that sheath our muscles, bones and organs). Sometimes after a TRE® session, you might experience a dream, memory or synchronicity that shows you what the body released. Sometimes not. It’s mysterious! Either way you feel better.

Dr. David Berceli, trauma therapist and TRE® founder, explains it this way:

  • the TRE® exercises bypass our thinking brain (neocortex), which
  • gives us direct access to our reptilian brain (brainstem), which
  • evokes the tremors, which
  • interrupts the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (limbic system of the brain), which
  • produces physical relaxation, which
  • reduces our stress, and
  • brings about neuroplasticity changes — and rewires your brain.

All this without needing to consciously control or even be aware of the releasing process! While we may never fully be free of our past traumas, we can minimize their impact on our day-to-day lives.

The Gift of TRE®

Feel More Relaxed, Peaceful & Connected

“Through these tremors, we access our inherent inner peace, because the mind, which is so often preoccupied with either the past or the future, has been quieted by relaxing the body—and the body exists only in the present moment. … Feeling connected to the universe is a much safer feeling than the isolation and loneliness of individuality and separateness.”
—Dr. David Berceli, The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process

Wonder if you’re suffering from unresolved or hidden trauma? Sign up for my newsletter below and I’ll send you my “Do You Have Unresolved Trauma?” quiz.

Woman triumphant
TRE® has not been evaluated by the US Food & Drug Administration or the American Medical Association. TRE® providers are not intending to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Medical advice must only be obtained from a physician or qualified health practitioner. Results may vary between individuals. There are no guarantees, expressed or implied.

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