[This DrP article was first published on MindBodyGreen]
Many close friends often tell me I’m good at entertaining myself. I had never really thought much about my practice of noticing sunsets, seeking out art, and hugging random animals, for instance, apart from the fact that I enjoy it and it makes my life better.
It was only later on that someone put a name to these micro-moments of joy: glimmers.
We spend so much time obsessing over the bad stuff in our lives and past, overanalysing ourselves, and that can often lead our brains to notice too much negativity. Or, for our nervous systems to continuously be retriggered.
So it makes absolute sense to use our mental energy to look for the good stuff that nourishes and heals us.
What are glimmers?
The term ‘glimmer’ was first introduced by social worker Deb Dana in her book The Polyvagal Theory In Therapy: Engaging The Rhythm Of Regulation. They are micromoments that make us feel happier, hopeful, safe and connected. And the best thing is, we can easily access them by looking for them.
Seeking out glimmers is a particularly noted practice in the neurodiverse community. Occupation Therapist Bec Secombes describes them as “a satisfying sensory delight that fills someone with fervent ecstasy”. Populations like the highly sensitive and neurodiverse have a threat-response learning system that is more sensitive and attuned to threats, but this very same nervous system also adapts quickly to cues and environments that are safe and supportive. In other words, the glimmer detectors are like metal detectors on steroids— they are cranked up and ever ready to revel in the beauty of life.
Why should you find glimmers?
Put simply, glimmers are great for your mental health.
On the bad days or through the more difficult chapters, glimmers can be that reset button, from which that healthier headspace gives you more energy and inspiration to do the things that might otherwise feel hard.
This isn’t to say, lie to yourself about how you’re feeling, or to pretend that that difficult situation doesn’t need work. Rather, sometimes we are in a headspace where our brains are biased towards remembering and noticing things associated with danger, losses or anything else negative. And that puts us in a position where we fail to notice the good things, much less interact with the world in a way that creates more positivity. For instance, when you are feeling isolated, you’re likelier to interpret benign facial expressions as threatening, and that makes you likelier to react to people in hostile ways and vice versa, reinforcing your perception that the world is a dangerous place.
To understand glimmers better, it is useful to see the different states we experience as a ladder.
- At the bottom is the freeze state, where we are paralysed or immobilised. Here, the dorsal vagal nerve circuit is activated. We feel things like worthlessness, hopeless, or are numb. We might cry, isolate ourselves, or be dissociated. Our skin feels cold, our posture is slouched, and we do very little.
- A step up is the fight or flight state, where the sympathetic nerve circuit is activated. We can feel things like motivation, anger, or anxiety; engage in actions like running away, attempts to confront, or physical movement; and our muscles are braced for action whilst our heart rate is higher.
- At the top of the top of the ladder is where we feel safe and socially engaged. The parasympathetic nervous system, specifically the ventral vagus nerve circuit, is activated. We can feel secure, centred and connected; do things like creative thinking, problem solving or connect with the world around us; and our hearts are calm whilst we have an open posture. In this state, our body also enters homeostasis, where it regulates itself.
According to Secombe, glimmers are useful because they
- Put us in an anchored state, where we go from survival to thriving mode.
- Help us feel seen, heard, understood and validated, from which we can connect with others empathetically.
- Support us to feel safe, cosy and secure, and so we can explore possibilities, entering a comfortable learning zone.
- Are micromoments of goodness that help our bodies to discharge the buildup of cortisol from previously-stressful situations, so we can return to a calm state where we also feel included.
Or when life is okay or good, why not make it better by tuning into all the amazing things that are already around. In this case, it’s really about living what I call #EverydayAmazing in my book, or the Italian notion of La Dolce Vita— life is beautiful.
How to find more glimmers
In Aristotle’s treatise On The Soul, the human being comes alive through the five senses. I couldn’t agree more.
Instead of having to experiment from scratch, one thing we can do is to create a repository based on your existing muscle memory.
For any of the following words— where relevant— jot down where you experience each of these feelings in your body, and what happened when you felt that way. This could be in a social context or when you are by yourself.
Happy, awe, hopeful, connected, joy, glee, peace, cared for, connected.
For instance, I experience connection as a warm sensation in my heart, that radiates through my chest. And that happens when a loved one does something thoughtful, when I see a cat or dog walking by, or when I think of times these happened.
Sounds too complicated?
Then, jot down what accidentally makes your heart smile.
Secombe also gives other examples including the sound of rain, a cat purring, damp springy moss, shiny bubbles, new leaves growing on plants, watching fish, and rainbows. I resonate with these. For me, these everyday glimmers come especially unexpectedly from spotting a planet in the night or dawn sky, a beautiful scent of cooking or nature, a butterfly flying into my garden, discovering beautiful art or tree textures.
But sometimes, it is hard to look for glimmers when in the frozen state. Frozen isn’t just about hiding in bed or on your sofa, sometimes it is in the form of rampant procrastinating on your phone instead of doing your tasks because everything feels overwhelming. Because we can’t even be motivated to seek glimmers out, much less feel we deserve them. In these instances, reflect upon which of the above emotions and their associated glimmers help move you up the polyvagal ladder.
A common one would be imagining what a kind role model would say to us, even if we couldn’t be kind to ourselves. Because they would still be kind to you. And when your nervous system feels safe, it is then easier to experience glimmers.
For this, I recommend a protocol:—
- Acknowledge what you’re feeling without judging yourself, whether it’s a singular or mixed emotion. Simply name it as a fact of the moment.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, imagining you are inflating your belly with air; hold for 4 counts, then exhale everything out for 7.
- Repeat three times. This way we ‘reset’ your brain away from fear mode towards a more centred state, and we also activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Visualise what your kind role model would say to you. Breathe into that feeling.
- Go seek glimmers that you’ve already listed out.
One thing I’ve always loved is to go on a Glimmer Expedition, by scheduling in Awe Walks. And you can do them in urban settings too, I do them in bookstores and Sephora at times. For me, using the camera lens is a good way of focusing my mind; and then if I choose to share them online, it becomes a way of reflecting and a gratitude journal. This makes it feel like the HIITs version of glimmers, where the effects last for a long time, and can easily be reawoken. When I take my awe walks with friends and we reshare them online, I’ve found that personally, this also creates a stronger connection with glimmers and with my friends.
1. What are glimmers and triggers?
Glimmers are internal or external cues that help us feel joy, safety or connection. Triggers are danger cues that make us feel threatened, leading us to fight, run away, freeze or fawn.
2. What is the glimmer polyvagal theory?
The glimmer polyvagal theory tells us that we can seek out experiences that help us feel safe, happier or connected. Instead of looking out for triggers, we can also help our healing and mental health via glimmers.
3. What triggers the dorsal vagal nerve?
Any sensory memory that we associate with danger, that leads us to freeze, triggers the dorsal vagal nerve. This could range from smells linked to a past dangerous/abusive event to certain details in items of furniture. When triggered, the timekeeper in our brain thinks that now is then, and we react that way.
As someone with ADHD, I get bored easily.
Upon reflecting, it surprised me how I have never been bored of my glimmers for years. Catching the sunset, looking at planets, watching new leaves unfurl— the simplest things that would theoretically bore a brain that needs constant novel stimulation— continue to heal, nourish and elevate me.
And it is with firsthand benefiting from an accidental longstanding practising of going on Glimmer Expeditions, that I encourage you to gift yourself this practise.
If you would like to heal, process and build your new life post-trauma, book your free Chemistry Call here to chat about a signature 8-week program that’s tailored to your lifestyle, values and personality.