A worldwide pandemic, systemic racism and police brutality, the impacts of climate change — many of these things were around long before 2020, but we seem to be at a tipping point. Most of us are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and frightened.
It’s safe to say we could all use a little hope. This isn’t to say we have to feel particularly optimistic all the time, but knowing we have the tools to manage what’s coming is essential in our pursuit of resilience.
We don’t have complete control over our circumstances, especially if we face marginalization and oppression, so I won’t suggest we do. We just need to tap into our “glimmers.” In our overstimulated worlds, glimmers can be the answer to regulating our overwhelmed nervous systems.
A glimmer is the exact opposite of a trigger—it is some kind of cue, either internal or external that brings one back to a sense of joy or safety. This can be anything from catching a view of the skyline of your favorite city to seeing a picture of your pet.
What are glimmers?
As most are aware, “triggers” are essentially cues of danger or agents that can disrupt our mental stability due to trauma or negative previous experience. Certain sounds, smells, people, and places can be triggering. If not checked, they can heavily affect our lives.
Lesser known are “glimmers,” which act as the opposite of triggers. These are cues of safety or agents that bring us back to calmness. A certain perfume, a picture of a loved one, a favorite retreat: imagining and revisiting these things can act as an antidote to the triggering elements around us.
History of Glimmers
The concept of glimmer is part of Polyvagal theory. Coined by behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges and introduced in 1995, the theory describes how our autonomic nervous system (which controls involuntary actions like breathing) is searching for and reading cues to determine if they are dangerous.
This process is called neuroception, and the vagus nerve, which regulates organ functions, is responsible for it.
The term glimmer, however, was introduced in 2018 in the book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation by licensed clinical social worker Deb Dana. It was popularized by a viral TikTok video in February 2022 by psychologist Dr. Justine Grosso, in a video that has nearly 100,000 likes.
Some Common Glimmers
If you’re still having trouble identifying what your own glimmers are, here are some common ones:
- Feeling the warmth of the sun
- Sensing the cool, salty ocean air
- The smell of cut grass
- Seeing a rainbow
- Sunlight sparkling on water
- Smelling lavender or some other relaxing scent
- Petting a dog or cat
- Being in nature
- A stranger smiling at you in public
- The perfect cup of coffee
Understanding Triggers and Glimmers
Let’s take a look at what causes a trigger and what leads to a glimmmer.
When You’re Triggered
When the brain is triggered, it associates past traumatic events as if they’re happening right now, leading to the brain and body being on high alert. Symptoms like rapid heartbeat might occur within the body as the flight-or-fight response occurs.
This response helps the body prepare for physical danger—helpful when you’re being chased by a tiger, less helpful when you’re being chased by your own memories.
When you’re in that state, your sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s response to a stressful situation, is activated, increasing the heart rate, and blood pressure, and pumping extra adrenaline to you to prepare you for danger. If this system is activated too often, or for too long, it can lead to health problems like chronic high blood pressure and insomnia.
In the Polyvagal theory, the analogy of a “ladder” is used. At the bottom of the ladder is the dorsal vagal state, also known as the “freeze state.” This is when immobilization and fear behaviors happen and the heart rate and blood pressure may fall.
When You Feel a Glimmer
The goal is to get to the “top” of the ladder—the ventral vagal state, which is connected with social engagement and safety. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as rest-and-digest) and puts the body in homeostasis. More time in the parasympathetic nervous system-activated state reduces your risk of disease.
How to use glimmers effectively
“When we work to include glimmers in our lives, we are setting ourselves up to have cues of safety in our day,” says Andrea Glik, LMSW and Queer Somatic Trauma Therapist.
According to a 2008 research review, negativity bias contributes to humans having a better understanding of our triggers than our glimmers, but preparation in advance can help us win against potential triggers.
How to Find More Glimmers
You can probably identify triggers in your life relatively quickly, but glimmers might be harder for you to access. It can be helpful to practice mindfulness or some kind of grounding activity before you attempt to discover your glimmers.
Discovering Your Glimmers
Think of a moment you had—no matter how fleeting it might have been—where you felt safe and connected, whether with yourself or with others. Glimmers will feel a little different in everyone’s bodies, but they’re generally those warm-and-fuzzy feelings where you feel cozy and safe.
Just as triggers can be both internal and external—from a thought of a traumatic situation that spontaneously comes up to a song that triggers intense feelings associated with a situation—so can glimmers. In fact, one person’s trigger might be another person’s glimmer.
Practical ways to implement glimmers daily:
- Take a personal inventory. Use Deb Dana’s Triggers and Glimmers Template to identify your biggest triggers and glimmers (Dana also recommends creating a “menu” of glimmers, so you have plenty to select from).
- Grab the headphones. Make a playlist of music that evokes feelings of peacefulness.
- Assemble the scents. Collect a few of your favorite essential oils or candles and keep them nearby.
- Get in touch with nature. Go for a walk or try going to the beach to hear the sound of waves crashing on the shore.
- Curate your social feeds. Follow accounts with calming, peaceful presences, and unfollow accounts with content that might be personally triggering.
- Plan around your interactions. Primarily connect with people who bring you peace. If you know you’ll connect with someone who triggers you, schedule a calming activity directly after.
- Constantly evaluate and adjust. Do a self-assessment by asking, “Is this working for me?” What works for others may not work for you, and that’s OK!
As Deb Dana explains, the trick is not to get rid of triggers entirely but to move out of a place of judgment regarding the things we find triggering and our response to this trauma.
“Well-being is not simply the absence of problems, but also the presence of strengths,” Dana writes in her book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation.
Our survival means understanding the good and the bad. It’s not enough to prevent cues of danger. We also have to activate cues of safety, i.e., our glimmers.
Connection, coregulation, and community
According to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, coregulation allows us to form connections of support in loving relationships. Coregulation develops through a child-parent relationship but can serve as a template for adult relationships as well. When we self-regulate and work on coregulation, we put welcoming cues out into the world, which can act as a glimmer for other people. This leaves us with a sense of responsibility, particularly in the time of the pandemic. “We’re linked, nervous system to nervous system,” says Dana.
The coregulation and self-regulation cycle
Just as we depend on the coregulation of parents or caretakers from birth until we can learn to self-regulate, our own self-regulation then teaches us how to coregulate. The cycle is the same with activating our glimmers, allowing them to radiate, and then allowing others to pick up on the cycle.
Glimmers radiate. Despite these challenging and polarizing times, we can harness the power of our ventral vagal system and use this to help other people who are struggling. And in turn, they can help us when we’re in flight or shut-down mode.
We can’t completely control the world around us, and it’s reductive to think we should have to overcome systemic issues by ourselves. But it’s important to realize our own agency. It’s important that we help each other find pathways to a more peaceful life. If we can do this, we might be able to move from a place of emotional hardship to a place where we truly shine.
JK Murphy is a Halifax-based writer and photographer who is passionate about mental health and body politics. She loves the ocean and making people laugh. Follow her on Twitter.