Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/25/2023
Looking for trauma-release exercises? You’ve come to the right place.
How stressed are you, really? If you’ve been holding tension or feeling like you’re stuck in fight-or-flight mode, your symptoms might be signs of trauma. And when trauma is causing these tightly wound feelings, you may need different coping mechanisms than everyday stress or anxiety call for. You might need to try trauma-release exercises.
Tension and trauma-release exercises are a collection of exercises designed to help you release, well…tension and trauma. You probably already know about the benefits of therapy. This is a little different, as you’ll see in the next section.
If you’re stressed or still reeling from past trauma or an adverse medical event in a way that keeps you stuck in an anxious cycle, these exercises might help you deal with those symptoms.
We’ll get to all of that in a moment. For now, let’s start by covering some basics about this group of meditation-type mind and body practices, starting with what exactly they can do for you and your tightly wound mind and body.
Trauma-release exercises (also sometimes referred to as somatic exercises) are a group of practices similar to mindfulness, stretching and other mind-body exercises. But unlike the other systems of release in this category, the series of exercises are particularly concerned with releasing muscle tension and stress.
Trauma release is another name for a category of therapies called somatic therapies. Somatic therapy is simply an approach to managing mental illness like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) by treating the body. This is why it’s sometimes called body-centered therapy or bottom-up therapy (the bottom being physical symptoms).
These exercises are generally preoccupied with the fight-or-flight response and the physical tension (and other symptoms) associated with anxiety, panic and trauma. The idea is that if you can manage the symptoms with regular exercises, you can treat the disease itself.
Somatic exercises and trauma-release exercises are a relatively new field. Though some may argue that practices like yoga and meditation fit into this category, the reality is that science hasn’t done a very good job yet of documenting and identifying the science of how they actually produce results.
Which isn’t to say results haven’t been recorded. A number of studies have shown the potential benefits of yoga and meditation for trauma.
The somatic benefits of mind-body work act as a complementary treatment. This means it benefits PTSD sufferers without actually being focused on PTSD treatment — the same way exercise can generally benefit your mental health.
Mind and body exercises can do a lot for you. A 2021 review conducted with an eye to the Covid-19 pandemic explored the benefits of mind-body exercises for people with PTSD, including anxiety and depression, and saw numerous benefits for practitioners.
Tension release exercises have also been shown to offer limited benefits for a number of conditions.
A 2021 study looked at how tension release could be used to help multiple sclerosis patients deal with the stress and muscle tension that result from the disorder. Though it was only a pilot study, self-reported results showed significant decreases in nearly all symptoms of the disorder — especially fatigue.
But specific exercises focused on trauma symptom reduction are still relatively new to the research world.
One study looked at a process called somatic experiencing over a 15-week period in 2017. They found clear benefits to the program that may present a potential PTSD treatment, as symptoms of PTSD, including distress and avoidance, were all reduced. They even found that the effect of reduced symptoms was maintained for a year after the study took place.
That said, further studies are needed to understand how it actually works.
For the record, Trauma and Tension Releases Exercises (sometimes abbreviated as TRE) is actually a specific, trademarked form of these exercises designed to help release muscle tension. But there are a handful of general techniques you can try.
There’s no one “best” release or somatic exercise for everyone. Research hasn’t gotten there yet, and we weren’t able to find a single study comparing somatic therapy methods to one another. Besides, different people with trauma will respond differently and find some exercises more useful than others.
Here are five exercises that can help you work on trauma and tension when you feel those feelings cropping up.
If you remember being rocked to sleep as a baby or the peace of a recent nap in a rare rocking chair, you probably already understand the innate benefits of rhythmic movement for your stress.
Dancing, drumming, rocking and even playing instruments all count as rhythmic movement practices. Even tapping your foot or “stimming” are great examples of repetitive movements that can let out a little tension. It’s also why you see so many athletes in movies tossing a ball to themselves or going out to practice alone.
Want to release some tension? Find a little rhythm.
If you want to feel confident and safe, strike a pose.
You may have seen TikTok videos about the power of striking a heroic pose to reduce your anxiety — and we’re here to tell you there’s some truth to it.
Experts generally agree posture can affect your mood, and specifically, open postures can improve it. If you find yourself hunched, elbows tucked in, vital organs protected, you may be reinforcing flight responses — and a closed posture.
Opening it up by throwing your head back, letting your throat, chest and genitals be unprotected, and uncrossing your arms can actually do the opposite, increasing your sense of safety. If you’re not sure how to start, just strike a superhero pose.
Grounding techniques are a great way to get your mind out of trauma responses and past experiences and back to the here and now. There are various ways to ground yourself, but many of them ask you to simply look, listen and smell the room until you feel more connected.
Pick five objects to look at and really study them for texture, weight and color. Do the same with sounds — pick ambient noises and identify each of them, note patterns and rate their volume.
Make it a game. You’re done playing when you feel in control again.
If you’ve ever followed one of those guided meditations that ask you to tense and release muscle groups, you’ve already practiced this technique for releasing tension and trauma.
Start with something small like your fingers or toes, squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for 10 seconds, and then release and relax them for twice as long without moving them.
The intention is to remind you who’s running the ship here. It’s not your trauma — it’s you.
Your breathing heightens when you’re stressed or anxious, so getting it back to normal is key to releasing the trauma tension.
There are various breathing patterns that have you inhale for a certain amount of time, exhale, hold your breath and repeat. They’re all generally focused on helping you self-regulate while taking power away from the emotions you’re feeling.
Truth be told, it doesn’t matter if you do the 4-4-4-4 pattern or the 4-7-8 pattern. It matters that you’re the one telling your lungs what to do — and to do it slowly.
Our go-to is the 4-4-4-4, which asks you to breathe, hold, exhale and hold again in a cycle, with each step taking four seconds. The reason we like it? It only takes a minute to finish 15 cycles, which is almost always enough to feel back in control (or just tired from breathing exercises).
Trauma can be managed in many ways that aren’t considered exercises but still require regular practice. For instance, therapy and medication have shown to be effective in the management of post-traumatic stress disorder in studies.
Medication for trauma can take several treatment approaches. Experts might, for instance, treat symptoms like insomnia with medications to help you sleep through the night.
Mood swings associated with serotonin and other neurotransmitter imbalances might be managed with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or similar antidepressants. Healthcare providers may also medicate you for nightmares — talk to a healthcare professional to learn more if that’s part of your symptom list.
Experts generally agree that trauma-focused forms of therapy are best for the treatment of trauma. This may include therapy styles you’ve already heard of, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT is a form of therapy specifically designed to help you better manage your thoughts. With trauma and other mental health conditions, negative or unhealthy thoughts can lead you to panic attacks, depressive episodes or reliving the traumatic event that caused your PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you learn to reject, control and slowly eliminate those thoughts and the reactions they trigger.
Other forms of psychotherapy for trauma include eye movement desensitization and exposure therapy. The specific approach will be selected based on your unique needs and individual trauma experience.
That’s why it’s important to not just seek treatment for trauma but to also involve a professional in the solution-finding process.
Trauma can feel a bit like steam — sometimes, you need a valve for letting it off in a controlled, safe way. After all, there’s an argument to be made that the people who don’t let off steam in a healthy way just find unhealthy ways of doing it.
But trauma release exercises are a short-term solution, especially if you’re producing a lot of trauma-related steam. You don’t want to be letting off steam constantly — or forever.
So what do you do?
Some may even find that lifestyle changes and alterations to habits give them the help they need to improve their quality of life. You might need all of the above.
The only way to find out is to talk with a mental health professional, and you can do that today with Hers. Our mental health resources can answer further questions you may have about trauma, but our online therapy platform is where progress really begins.
Reach out to match with mental health professionals conveniently from anywhere you have WiFi. We’re available 24/7 to start your healing process — because steam doesn’t sleep.