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Glimmers - the antidote to triggers and how to look for them

Most of us are very familiar with the idea of a trigger: a moment, event or situation that invokes feelings and memories that are unwanted. Sometimes we are very aware of our triggers. It might be a smell or a sound, a particular place or time of year. It might be someone's tone of voice or the way they phrase something that reminds you of someone that hurt you. It usually comes with a physical response as our nervous system kicks in, giving you a sense that you're at threat, in danger, as your body tries to keep you safe from harm. If you're aware of your triggers you might decide to avoid situations where you're likely to encounter them, or you may be able to use that awareness to bring yourself back into safety, for example by using breathing exercises. If you're not aware of what triggers you, this becomes harder to do, and it can feel like your anxiety levels are always on edge as your body scans for potential threat almost constantly.

Learning how to manage triggers and re-regulate the nervous system is a key part of being able to recover from trauma and anxiety. One of the tools I use with clients in therapy is first to begin noticing. What is happening in the immediate moments that a panic attack starts to kick in? What is happening when you fly off the handle into a rage? What is happening when you feel the need to curl in a ball and hide from the world? For me, I learnt that a fear of abandonment led me to shut down and cut off connections with others. The slightest hint that someone was checking out on me, whether that was not responding to a text for hours on end or picking up their phone to look at a text mid conversation with me would lead to a disruption of emotional contact with that person that I found difficult to overcome. It sounds dramatic, but what my nervous system was doing was saying 'hey, last time someone checked out on you they left for good and that was really painful, we need to beat this person to it to avoid that pain again'. Part of me would close myself off to that relationship and my brain would create a story to justify it: if they can't even be bothered to listen properly then I'm not going to give my whole self to them, they're not really interested in me anyway.

My body responded to the other person's cues as a signal that this person wasn't safe to be close to and my mind then had to justify that with a narrative that everyone leaves - to keep myself safe I needed to leave first, at least emotionally if not physically. Through therapy and my own training I have learnt to reclaim that narrative by tuning into glimmers. This was a term I first came across when learning about how the nervous system regulates our emotions. Deb Dana identifies them as cues of safety and says 'Glimmers can help calm a nervous system in survival mode' (Dana, D. 2018, pp. 68). What that means is that when we allow ourselves to tune into these cues as well as our triggers,we can begin to expand and grow our capacity to feel safe in our body, reducing the automatic trauma and anxiety responses and giving ouselves back a sense of autonomy and control.

Glimmers are the moments in time where we feel safe and connected to ourselves and others around us. This might be felt through physical cues such a reciprocated smile or a hug, or eye contact. It might be felt through a gentle tone of voice or a well timed, genuine request to know how you are, where your friend is actively listening for your response. Sometimes, it's finding a place within yourself that you can imagine safety, whether that's through guided meditation, breathing exercises or invoking a memory of a place where you felt safe in the past. We can also tune ourselves into the moments in a day where we just feel ok. That first sip of coffee in the morning, sunlight coming in through the window, stroking a pet or hearing the birds when out for walk. Glimmers are those tiny moments where we feel a spark of postive emotion that can come from within ourselves or as a result of feeling connected to others. Again, just as through noticing our triggers and being aware of them can help us to manage our responses, noticing our glimmers and actively seeking out those moments in times of stress can help widen our perception of positive experiences that can feel elusive in the midst of anxiety. It takes practice and a conscious desire to find them, but glimmers can help balance the scales back in your favour. And the even better news is, the more attention and energy we put into finding our glimmers, the less likely we are to focus on our triggers.

In my case, I have been learning that small disruptions in connection don't mean absolute abandonment. When I feel that small rupture I take a breath, remind myself that I am in charge of the story that I tell myself about it, and actively seek out glimmers of reconnection. When I feel vulnerable in those moments I think of all the times I have felt safe with that person and tip the scales back. Sometimes it might need a conversation in my head about reality versus what my body is saying - we all get distracted sometimes, it doesn't mean we don't care. Sometimes it might be a conversation with that person to say 'you know when you do.... I feel disconnected from you, would it be ok to just come back to me in those moments and reassure me?' It's uncomfortable to share that vulnerability, but it can also help build a much stronger bond of trust to do so. Of course, if I was with someone who constantly made me feel unsafe then that's a different story - sometimes your body IS telling the truth. The ongoing practice is to notice and pay attention to the glimmers, learning about what feels safe for you so that you can find that space within yourself when you feel triggered. Being more in tune with your nervous system means you can create a more objective narrative and have more control over your decisions and actions. You can actively seek out what makes you feel safe and have more sense of what's wrong when you don't.

See what glimmers you can notice over the next few days, maybe even write them down along with how they make you feel.

Glimmers are:-

  • Micro moments of joy, happiness or contentedness

  • A feeling of being connected to yourself and others

  • Regulating for your nervous system

  • Helpful in building resilience when facing triggers

  • A cue of safety

  • Mood improvers

  • Come from things you can do alone or with others

  • Moments where you feel at peace

  • Everywhere - when you look

Glimmers could be:-

  • Laughing unexpectedly

  • Spending time with people you feel safe with

  • Listening to great music

  • Watching a sunrise

  • Getting into a freshly made bed

  • Going to a concert

  • Reading a comforting book

  • Receiving a welcome hug

  • Snuggling up with a blanket, hot chocolate and your pet

  • Feeling the sun on your skin

  • Singing

  • Smelling something beautiful

  • Holding hands

  • Dancing in the rain

I hope you can start to notice some more glimmers throughout your day. I'd love to hear what you notice!

Sam x


Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

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