We’ve all got triggers, but did you know you have glimmers too?
My Why podcast version of this blog available here.
The other day on Instagram I reposted something from another account onto my story. It was a post that that account had repurposed from somewhere else, etc etc, you know how it goes. The concept was so interesting, and I got such lovely comments that I thought I’d do a blog post/episode on it. Especially for those of you that don’t see my social media and just listen to the podcast.
The post was about ‘glimmers’.
Now, if someone had said to me ‘do you know what a glimmer is?’ before I saw the post, I’d have thought about a small faint, beam of light, assumed that wasn’t what they were talking about, and quickly said 'No'. Well, it turns out it’s a lot more than a faint beam of wavery light, it’s also used in another context by a lady called Deb Dana.
Deb Dana, is a clinician, consultant, and speaker specialising in complex trauma. She is the leading translator of Dr. Stephen's Polyvagal Theory for both clinical and general audiences. Now, being someone who likes to try, as much as possible, to get my information from the true source I ended up down a Polyvagal rabbit hole trying to work out the true definition of a glimmer.
I want to point out upfront that I’m not an expert in this, I learnt about it thirty minutes ago and am going to do my best to paraphrase what I’ve learnt in that time to give you a bit of context before showing you how it can help us. However, if you want to go further into this area of science I’d point you towards Deb Dana’s book: ‘Polyvagal Theory in Therapy’.
And like every other theory, it has its critics and differing opinions, but I’m not here to debate that, just show you something that’s come from it that I think can help offer us some hope in our loss and grief situations.
The best explanation I found of Polyvagal Theory was a short 3 minute video of Deb Dana herself explaining it on YouTube (well done Deb, zero waffle) and I’ll post the link in the blog if you want to watch it, however, if you don’t, here’s my paraphrased, very new to this, summary of Polyvagal Theory...
Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how we move through the world, how our biology assists us when navigating daily experiences, who we are and the fact that we have different states - from secure, to anxious, to defensively shut down. The theory has compassion for all of these states, so there's no judging them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and it shows us how to reclaim that feeling and status of safety.
It has three organising principles: Hierarchy, Neuroception and Co-regulation. Bear with me.
Principle 1: Hierarchy, is the three states that our nervous system takes us through many times a day. These states are connections, mobilisation (which is sympathetic and brings fight and flight) and disconnection/collapse. This theory says that it’s a predictable hierarchy and so we move through them in a predictable order, this can be powerful information for therapists and clients, because they then know that the nervous system will move through connection, protection, and then back to connection once more.
Principle 2: Neuroception. The way the nervous system gets the cues to move into each of the three states. This has three streams of information it’s always listening to; inside the body, outside in the environment, and between nervous systems. The information comes into your nervous system every microsecond, but below the level of your thinking brain, so to do anything with it you have to bring perception to neuroception. I think that’s deep enough into that one!
Principle 3: Co-regulation. This tells us we are wired to be in connection with other people. Deb says: ‘Our nervous system longs to be connected to another nervous systems’. How sweet is that? ‘It’s a biological imperative that means we don’t survive without it.’
So Polyvagal Theory gives us a way to work with the nervous system to come into safe connection with other human beings.
It’s the science of connection. It’s the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living. Deb Dana
Read that again.
So this theory is about listening to things you hear and experience, through the lens of your nervous system and basically - see what it says. And she’s spoken on the fact you can actively test this by even reading certain things and seeing how your nervous system takes them or responds.
So, one of the chapters in her book is called ‘The Triggers and Glimmers Map.’
And again from looking around for information, because I don't have the book, it looks like this is a ladder type diagram that climbs up from Dorsal Vegal, Immobilised/collapsed, to Sympathetic - mobilised, fight to flight, then at the top Ventral Vagal - safe, social. All of these sections are marked as ‘Triggers’ apart from the top one - Ventral Vagal (safe, social) which is marked as ‘Glimmers’.
Her book refers to glimmers as small moments when our biology is in a place of connection or regulation, which cues our nervous system to feel safe or calm.
We're not talking great, big, expansive experiences of joy or safety or connection. These are micro moments that begin to shape our system in very gentle ways…. You feel something happen inside, there's an energy that happens around a glimmer, and then your brain then marks it as well. Deb Dana
And these glimmers can be found in many different places and senses. Some examples might be:
A smile from another person, or a recognisable and loved voice.
In nature, plants, trees, stars, beaches, mountains, soft breezes, warm sunshine, the stars, or the moon.
Animals - pets, watching wild animals, connection or comfort through furry fellas around us.
Music - a song, a tune of something you love or connect with. Church bells, musicians, or something on the radio.
The thing I love about glimmers is that, working with trauma survivors, it's so respectful of their suffering. It allows them to understand that their biology is wired in a way that we don't discount the trauma or the crisis or the ongoing suffering, but we recognize that their biology is exquisitely set up to be able to also notice the micro moments of goodness. Deb Dana
Apparently as humans we have a natural tendency to look for the bad. I hear you cry 'Noooo, really?!' I definitely see that in me, and most people I know. We're constantly on guard to make sure we, and those we care about, stay safe. Not because we live near tigers or bears, well, I don’t anyway, but because life has a lot to throw at us in the modern world. The physical threat to our lives might have diminished over the years, but the mental, emotional and spiritual threat is higher than ever.
And so most of us are all too aware that life is full of things that set us on edge, hurt us, cause us loss, grief or feelings of failure or anxiety, in other words - triggers. Things that spark strong emotions in us, fight, flight, freeze, fear and before we know it, it’s physical - sweating, spots, bloating, IBS, eczema, migraines, addictions, self harm, whatever your weak spot is. So it’s easy for us to see how information going into our nervous system can result in a negative physical reaction.
And our triggers are completely unique to us, I mean, yes, being thrown over a cliff by someone you thought you liked might well kick off a response in all of us, or finding a tiger in the bathroom that’s ready to eat you alive, but most triggers are different for us all, connected to our personal experiences of loss, grief and fears.
Now the world has gone a little ‘trigger happy’ if you ask me, not just in relation to guns, but also with putting trigger warnings on everything and I’ve done a blog post called ‘Warning: No trigger warnings’ about why I don’t use them on my posts or podcast. So we’re all very familiar with them at this point in society, we probably know our own triggers intimately, and are regularly surprised by new ones. Therefore, it makes sense, to me anyway, that if we get triggered in a negative way, it would stand to reason it must be possible in a positive way too.
And this is where glimmers come in.
The idea with glimmers is that recognizing small, positive moments over and over again can begin to shape our nervous system. Which, surprise surprise, can have a beneficial impact on our mind and health.
Taking a break from uncomfortable emotions, finding a little joy to let in, or chilling with something we love, can reduce the stress going on inside us.
When your emotions go down, your logic goes up, that means you might be able to tackle a problem from a different angle because you see things a little differently, or you might be able to talk yourself into doing something difficult, once your anxiety subsides a little. Less emotional distress can also help you take more positive action. And that positive action can help make your life better. What we've discovered is as you begin to see a glimmer, you begin to look for more. It's just what we do... and we then delight in finding them. That's your nervous system beginning to shape toward the patterns of connection that are inherently waiting in there to be deepened and brought alive. Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind
Deb Dana even invites people to set what she calls a ‘glimmer intention.’ You could decide to find a glimmer before lunch, or before dinner, or before bed. Or keep a glimmer journal to write down glimmers and reflect on them at the end of the day. Or you can even do glimmer journeys with others, since we’re wired for connection.
We want to start small because for many people, finding a glimmer is a challenge. For people who have lived in a trauma-saturated life, it's hard to look outside of that. Deb Dana
Sometimes, people don't want to feel them because they know those emotions won't last, or they might feel guilty for feeling good during a hard time in their lives," she says. "But trust that it's OK to allow yourself to experience them. Enjoy them while they last. And know that you'll have more moments of joy in the future as well. Amy Morin
So what are your glimmers?
What things in life bring you those tiny moments of joy? As you stop and think about it now, what comes to mind first?
I’ll give you some of mine:
Staring at the night sky when it’s full of stars and the moon is out
Feeling the warmth of the sun on my face with a light breeze in the air
Watching my garden plants start to bloom in the spring
Observing the hedgehogs snuffling around on my patio as they come for the food I put out
Reaching out to touch or connect with an animal I want to interact with
Sitting down to my lunch during the week, with the same food, a cup of Earl Grey, something to watch on TV - a routine I love and take a lot of pleasure in
Making my husband laugh
Coming up with a new idea for my novel
When someone just ‘gets me’
Sinking into a hot bath with a great paperback novel
Feeling the sea on my feet and the sun on my back on a sandy beach
And of course, marzipan.
And sometimes, I’ll be struck by one out of the blue, one I didn’t expect and didn’t even know was a glimmer for me, and when you start to notice these moments, you learn to pause and appreciate them, allow it to sink into your soul and feel thankful for it. It’s not only a lovely feeling, it teaches you more about who you are and what your nervous system loves. Of course, I didn’t know they were called glimmers by some until now, but now I do, I’m going to use that word, I want to identify them, be open to them, and hunt those suckers down. I’m after glimmers for my Nephesh (which is a lovely Hebrew word I recently learnt for ‘soul’, but it’s more than that really, it’s our whole living being)
Like triggers, glimmers are super personal. You don’t have to take joy in things that don’t naturally give you joy. Despite what anyone else says. So if you’re thinking of something that should give you joy, but it doesn’t - give yourself a break - that’s ok - throw it out as a glimmer candidate. You can’t manufacture those moments any more than you can your triggers. And who’d want to?! Don’t second guess them either, it’s entirely possible to have triggers in triumph, or glimmers in grief.
Getting used to recognising when your mood or mental state changes is a very healthy thing to observe and learn. I want to encourage you to notice these changes and then ask yourself – what caused it? It might be obvious if that tiger is back in the bathroom, but sometimes it might be more obscure. Maybe you heard, saw, smelt, sensed or thought something that made you feel unsafe, anxious, insecure, excluded, fearful, safe, secure, needed, valued, or joyful. Note what your physiological reaction was and what message it sent. Keep track of your triggers and find ways to work on those, and note down your glimmers and find ways to inject more of them into your life.
Find your glimmers people, keep an eye out for them, intentionally put them in your day, don’t overdose and kill the effect - if you love a starry sky don’t break your neck looking up at them, don't sell your house to sleep under them and get pneumonia, but recognise the benefit on your body with these tiny moments of joy, the effect on your mind and soul, (and nervous system apparently) and know that their power to heal and calm might go a lot further than you think.
And the next time you hear or see a ‘trigger warning’ don’t forget there’s another side to those, yes something might trigger you, but if it does balance it out by finding a glimmer afterwards. How amazing would the world be if there were ‘glimmer warnings’ on things instead?!
A glimmer isn’t a moment of selfish indulgence, it's more like the dripping of life-giving water onto a parched soul (or nephesh!). Savour them, explore them, enjoy them, swim in them, share them, go find them.
And occasionally there will be moments in life when you feel like you’re being bathed in pure joy, the bigger moments where everything comes together and you’re the king or queen of your life, but they’re rare and that’s not what we’re talking about here. Glimmers are the tiny pin pricks of joy that appear and connect with you in a way that only you will recognise and appreciate.
This is the Instagram post I shared:
I'm going to finish with a quote from the famous book Eat, Pray, Love, to encourage us to find the beautiful in life, whatever its size.
It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn’t have picked me out from a police line-up. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt– this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight. Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert