Suffering from Stress? See How to Literally Shake It Off
“Shake it off” is a common expression after you’ve had a fall, disappointment, or loss. It’s a way of telling yourself to just let it go and move on. While you’re likely familiar with the saying, did you know it has biological roots? After getting a shock or fright as well as when excited or happy, we may notice we begin to involuntarily shake or tremble. Expressions like “knees knocking in fright” or “shaking like a leaf” are common because that’s how the body reacts. And humans aren’t the only creatures to shake off stress, tension, or even trauma.
Have you ever watched two dogs have a tense exchange? Soon after the incident, both dogs will shake their entire bodies before they get back to sniffing, panting, and enjoying their best dog lives.
After escaping from a lion or other predator, zebras, antelopes, gazelles, and even rabbits also shake their bodies to release stress before getting back to normal. 1
Now, new research is showing that shaking off after a life-threatening situation (or at least something that feels that way), minor accident, or distressing event can prevent that stress from lingering and affecting our lives negatively. 2 – 5
Please note: By no means are we experts in healing trauma or the stress response. If you are under intense stress, please seek professional help, especially when dealing with trauma. This article is for informational purposes only. The methods discussed in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition and may not be effective for everyone.
Experiencing Stress and Trauma
We often consider trauma as something someone only experiences after a major event, such as post-traumatic stress for war veterans or assault survivors. But stress and even trauma are part of everyday life. They can result from minor accidents, medical procedures, illnesses, injury, loss of a job or loved one, and emotional events. Even just the normal stress of living—from endless deadlines to missed appointments to traffic jams to fighting with your spouse, parent, co-worker, or boss can lead to feeling under constant stress and tension.
Plus, what causes stress or trauma for one person may hardly be noticeable to another. Even at different times in our lives, different experiences can lead to different reactions.
Even, or perhaps more accurately, especially, people who are a bit more stoic and tend to push the stress and emotions down and out of the way can discover months or even years later that the stress from a seemingly remarkable event is causing uncomfortable symptoms, including:
- Anger or aggression
- Panic attacks
- Physical pain
- Digestive distress
- And more.
Shaking Off Stress and Symptoms
Sometimes called “controlled shaking” or a type of moving meditation, somatic movement is becoming a new trend in improving mental health.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a somewhat new form of therapy, developed over the last 45 years, that uses the same concept as animals shaking off stress. That is, it’s about engaging the body physically to help heal ourselves. This is based on the theory that stress can become trapped in the body, locking us into a repeating cycle of fear, pain, and anxiety.
SE was introduced by American psychotherapist Dr. Peter Levine. His approach is that it’s not the events we experience or even how we think about those events that causes problems. Instead, “it is the overwhelmed response to the perceived life threat that is causing an unbalanced nervous system.”
Going back to the animal example, prey animals like deer, gazelles, and antelope are regularly under threat from predators. After a threat is no longer looming, these animals shake or tremble, which appears to be how they naturally release the stress from their nervous systems. In turn, they don’t exhibit anxious or stressed behavior once the event has passed.
Humans from some indigenous or shamanic cultures have similar rituals—often through dancing and movement. For most modern society, however, these types of rituals are no longer practiced.
“Shaking it off,” however, is still common, such as when you shake off your hand after shutting a finger in a car door, brushing off your limbs after a fall, or trembling after getting scared. Yet, we often suppress the urge to tremble, shake, or cry after an incident to avoid being judged poorly by onlookers. Most of us have simply been conditioned, socially, to grin and bear stress, pretending everything is cool… that nothing can faze us.
This isn’t, however, the healthiest way to deal with trauma. Animals, if not able to shake, tend to die. Humans, on the other hand, experience unwanted symptoms, which may lead to mental and physical illness. 6 Our bodies, it appears, keep score.
Using the SE technique over the last 30 years, Levine has shown thousands of individuals how to release stress from the body through shaking and trembling. He explains how it helps not only reduce symptoms but may even eliminate them, even after unspeakably terrible events. Symptoms that SE may help include stored physiological sensations that lead to headaches, muscle stiffness, unexplained aches and pains, nightmares, and even panic attacks.
Another popular shaking method is called Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), developed by Dr. David Berceli. According to the good doctor, TRE is “an innovative series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension, and trauma.” This is accomplished by activating the natural reflexes of shaking to help release muscular tension and thus calm the nervous system.
Other shaking proponents offer some looser techniques that just encourage the body to move, such as shaking each arm, hand, leg, and entire body for about 10 to 30 seconds anytime you feel stressed or as part of your waking routine in the morning to get the nervous system into full gear.
It’s worth noting that research on these methods is currently rather limited, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about how effective shaking can be for a variety of people.
Shaking: A Natural Response to Release Tension
Is shaking a natural response to tension? A trained social worker and psychologist who worked in high conflict areas for both trauma and international conflict resolution for many years, Dr. Berceli believes so. His experience in bomb shelters informed the theory. As bombs were dropping, he found that adults and children all put their hands over their heads and curled into a fetal position.
As the bombs hit and after, he noticed that children universally would begin to shake. Adults, on the other hand, tended to “pull themselves together.” In other words, adults override the voluntary mechanism to shake after a stressful or even life-threatening event to avoid looking vulnerable. This, sadly, cuts off a healthy mechanism to release stress and calm the nervous system.
If we can learn to use the body’s natural tendency to shake off stress, it may help discharge the energy and chemicals that can build up after an event, which often seems to lead to both physical and mental issues. In other words, shaking is a valid and useful tool for the nervous system. And when we prevent our bodies from shaking when stressed, we can end up stuck, unable to fully release that stress and let go of the accumulated tension. Yep, that sounds like it could lead to problems.
Benefits of Shaking It Off
Practitioners have used methods like SE and TRE with firefighters, soldiers, tsunami and earthquake survivors, pain sufferers, and many more to help decrease:
- Emotional tension
- Chronic pain
- Muscular tension
And after using these methods, many people have reported:
- Feeling calmer
- Being more peaceful
- Increased resiliency
- Improved flexibility
- Better physical alignment
- Improved digestion
- Feeling more relaxed and less anxious or worried
- Better, deeper, more restorative sleep
- Greater creativity
- Increased energy and endurance
- A clearer head
- Decreased pain, including muscle and back pain
- Improved injury recovery
- More balanced immune system
- Even beauty benefits like more glowing, healthy skin
Shaking, in short, may allow the nervous system to fully release stress and trauma. To experiment with the methods, you don’t need to understand, talk about, get in touch with, or even remember your stress or trauma to allow your body to begin to heal. This can be especially helpful for people experiencing the adverse effects of stress without being sure where that stress comes from.
For some people, managing the bodily sensations by trembling can be life-changing and affirming. Others, however, may need additional support, especially if dealing with complex stress or trauma. Then, however, these methods can be part of an integrative package.
How to Shake It Off
Tension & Trauma Release Exercises or TRE® is a series of six movements created by Dr. Berceli to induce therapeutic neurogenic tremors. These tremors go along the spine to release deep tension. For complete instructions, check out this video or for more personalized instruction, you can visit TraumaPrevention.com
Dr. Berceli has also written a couple of books, including:
- Shake if Off Naturally by David Berceli, Ph.D.
- The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process by David Berceli, Ph.D.
Somatic Experience, on the other hand, is typically recommended working with a trained therapist to help you customize the approach. A list of practitioners can be found here: Somatic Experiencing International
In addition, Dr. Levine has written a couple of books to help people better understand the theory:
- Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
- In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter Levine
Other techniques include:
- Arm Swinging (aka Ping Shuay Qong promoted by a Qigong master) for around 10 minutes to help the energy in your body move.
- Another form of Qigong combines shaking with breathing to relax.
- You can also just shake each limb before shaking your entire body for 30 seconds to 10 minutes as demonstrated here. You certainly don’t need to follow a video. You can simply tune into your body and shake each limb and your entire body as feels good. Even shaking freely for 30 seconds may help the body release energy and stress, sending the message to the mind and body to relax and reset.
You can find more information on methods to move your body to release stress at some yoga studios, gyms, and fitness centers, on websites, books, and even apps. Some methods may be more effective for you, and some (like SE and TRE) are designed to be more therapeutic, while others may just help you relieve stress in the moment.
Of course, if you are recovering from long-term or severe trauma, working with a professional is highly recommended and is likely necessary. At the very least, it’s a good idea to have someone you trust there to support you as you learn to “shake it off, shake it off…”