We have a network of nerves throughout our body that control involuntary processes, such as breathing and heartbeat, without us having to think about them. This autonomic nervous system is always active, even when we’re asleep, because it’s key to our survival.
Our autonomic system is constantly scanning the environment for cues that we may be in danger. This system activates our fight, flight or freeze reactions. It isn’t great at telling time, though. It can’t tell the difference between a current experience and the memory of a past traumatic event. Sometimes, our body reacts to something from the past as if it is happening right now. This is often a reaction to a sensory association with the past trauma––a sound, taste, smell, or emotional vibration. Things in the present that cause a reaction to past events are called triggers. Triggers re-create the body’s stress response, inducing fear and a flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline.
Triggering has become a mainstream concept. There are trigger warnings in books, before movies, and during news programs. Viewers are given the chance to limit or avoid their exposure to triggering content in order to limit a triggered stress response. The word ‘trigger’ has entered our everyday vocabulary.
I recently became aware of a mirror concept which is not mainstream. It was introduced by licensed clinical social worker Deb Dana,* and is called a glimmer. Glimmers are also reactions produced by the autonomic nervous system, but they are positive cues that bring us back to a sense of joy, safety, and connection. They have a calming effect on our nervous system.
Just as triggers can be avoided, glimmers can be pursued. You can develop your own glimmers. Some of them might include: feeling the warmth of the sun or a fresh cool breeze on your skin, smelling lavender or bread baking, seeing a sun-sparkled lake or a starry sky, petting a dog or a cat, listening to leaves rustle in the trees or waves lapping on a shore, tasting a nice cup of tea or coffee, smiling at a stranger, smiling for no reason. Glimmers produce a sense of ease and calm. Any amount is beneficial and worthwhile. Sometimes just thinking about them can be helpful.
Recognizing small, positive moments over and over can begin to reshape our mental and physical health. Once we begin to see and acknowledge glimmers, we can begin to look for and experience more of them. We can even set a “glimmer intention” such as: I’m going to look for one glimmer before lunch. You can keep a glimmer journal. You can ask a friend to go on a glimmer journey with you.
For everyone who is reading this: Thank you for being my glimmers! Just knowing you’re out there, sharing these blogs with me makes my heart happy : )
* See Deb Dana’s book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton, 2018).