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. What I will say — as someone who has struggled with mental illness for most of my life — is that it can get better, and we are powerful.
We just need to tap into our “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.
The concept of triggers and glimmers exists within Polyvagal theory, which was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges (a behavioral neuroscientist) in the early 1990s. Deb Dana, a clinician, consultant, and lecturer specializing in complex trauma established the concept of triggers and glimmers as an expert in Polyvagal theory.
As Dana explains, “Trauma reshapes our system so that we are more prone to pathways of protection than pathways of connection.” This keeps us in a survival state instead of a thriving state.
Triggers activate either the sympathetic nervous system or the dorsal vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. This means that when trauma is trapped in our system, we go into a hyper-vigilant state, or our freeze response is activated, and we shut down. Neither is a healthy place to exist in for an extended period.
But glimmers are guided by our ventral vagal system. These make us feel safe, connected to ourselves and other people. Calling attention to our glimmers can bring a return to autonomic regulation, creating a meaningful shift in perspective.
“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.
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.
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.
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.