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Exploring Polyvagal Theory in TRE® (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises)

In the ever-evolving landscape of trauma healing and somatic therapy, two influential figures stand out to me: Dr. Steven Porges, the architect of Polyvagal Theory, and Dr. David Berceli, the founder of Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®).


Together, their work has ushered in a new understanding of how the body responds to stress and trauma and provided powerful tools for healing. In this article, I delve into the applications of Polyvagal Theory in TRE®, highlighting the significance of the social engagement system.


But what is Polyvagal Theory?


Polyvagal Theory, pioneered by Dr. Steven Porges, offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the autonomic nervous system's response to threat and safety. At its core, the theory posits that the nervous system's evolution is marked by three distinct response systems: the ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal systems. The ventral vagal complex, often referred to as the social engagement system, plays a pivotal role in our ability to self-regulate and connect with others and navigate social interactions, the sympathetic being our fight/flight response, and dorsal vagal being our shutdown, immobilisation/freeze response.


What is the particular relevance to TRE®?


Dr. David Berceli's TRE® method capitalises on the principles of Polyvagal Theory by providing a simple yet profound set of exercises designed to release deeply held tension and trauma from the body. By engaging the body's innate tremor response, TRE® facilitates the discharge of stress and restores a sense of safety and regulation.


One key aspect of Polyvagal Theory in TRE® is the emphasis on the body's innate capacity for self-regulation and healing. As Dr. Porges states, "The nervous system is not simply a mechanism for detecting danger but is also a system that detects safety." TRE® harnesses this principle by creating conditions that allow the nervous system to shift from states of hyperarousal or shutdown (dorsal vagal) to a state of safety and social engagement (ventral vagal).


For example, consider someone who has experienced chronic stress and trauma, leading to a dysregulated nervous system characterised by hypervigilance and an inability to trust others (something I see often in my classes and workshops). They might be easily startled, unable to close their eyes and relax in a class or open up to people in conversations.


Through TRE®, this individual can gradually learn to access their social engagement system by safely discharging stored tension and activating the ventral vagal complex. As they experience moments of trembling and release, they may also notice a shift in their ability to connect with others and experience a greater sense of ease and safety within themselves and in social interactions. It could be something as simple as tight jaw muscles being released allowing for a smile.


Moreover, the incorporation of Polyvagal Theory in TRE® highlights the interconnectedness of mind, body, and social engagement. As Dr. Porges eloquently describes, "Our nervous system depends on the cues from our body to detect safety or danger." TRE® recognises this interplay by inviting individuals to tune into their bodily sensations and track their internal experiences throughout the practice. By doing so, practitioners can cultivate greater awareness of their nervous system's responses and learn to modulate their physiological states in real-time.


In essence, the integration of Polyvagal Theory in TRE® underscores the importance of restoring safety and connection at both the individual and interpersonal levels. By empowering individuals to access their innate capacity for self-regulation and social engagement, TRE® offers a pathway towards healing that is rooted in the body's wisdom and resilience.


There is so much more research needed and so much more I could say, however, it is my opinion that the applications of Polyvagal Theory in TRE® represent a groundbreaking approach to trauma healing and somatic therapy. By honouring the body's innate intelligence and emphasising the role of the social engagement system, TRE® provides a powerful tool for restoring balance and connection in the face of adversity.


As a facilitator continuing to explore the synergies between these two paradigms, I am deepening my understanding of trauma's impact on the nervous system and my aim is to pave the way for my clients to experience profound, transformative healing journeys.


Looking to try TRE®? Get in touch!

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