The dictionary defines glimmer as a noun- a faint or wavering light or as a verb- to shine faintly with a wavering light. Therefore, you might be able to say that glimmer is a synonym for a tiny spark! In the mental health world, glimmers can mean something a little bit different. Let’s dive in to learn about glimmers and how they can help us regulate our nervous system.
To start to get a sense of what a glimmer is in reference to self-care and resilience, I find it helpful to reflect on a quotation from author Kurt Vonnegut:
One of the things [my] Uncle Alex found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?””
Long before we ever talked about glimmers and resources and resilience (oh my!), Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex had the idea down pat. So often, we go through life on autopilot, rushing from one task to the next, hurrying up so we can get to work, speeding home so we can cook dinner, all so we might have an hour to ourselves to zone out on Netflix, TikTok, or whatever your relaxing-but-not-taxing tool of choice is.
Now, it’s not a bad thing that our brain can work on autopilot, it’s helpful in moving us through our daily routine and it saves us from having to think about every single activity we do each day. Imagine if you had to be 100% conscious and aware while brushing your teeth, each up and down motion taking careful focus - that would be exhausting! But being on autopilot too often can disconnect us from ourselves, from our resilience, and from what is good in our lives. If we are in a period of high stress or have a history of trauma, it becomes even more critical to become aware of glimmers or moments of goodness in our lives.
Let’s talk about some background on glimmers: the concept of glimmers is part of the Polyvagal Theory introduced in 1996 by behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges.
The Polyvagal Theory is a complex but fascinating way of describing how our autonomic nervous system (the one that controls involuntary actions like breathing as well as our survival system - think fight/flight/freeze) is constantly searching for and interpreting cues around us to determine if they are dangerous. This searching and interpreting is called neuroception and the process happens below the surface, with our nervous system and vagus nerve working together to assess our safety every moment of the day.
Later on, Deb Dana, a social worker and author used the word glimmer in her book on Porges’s work called The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation by Deb Dana. Her book is a fascinating take on our nervous system and how we can find more regulation and resilience in our daily lives.
You may remember from past conversations we’ve had together here that sometimes our body may feel activated by something the brain feels is dangerous - sometimes we might flip our lid out of stress - and when that happens, our nervous system and body may move into a fight, flight, or freeze state. We might think of those activating events as “triggers.” Maybe you’ve even heard people say “I’m so triggered” or “That really triggered me” when something stressful happens.
You can think of glimmers as the opposite of triggers - glimmers are triggers’ happy, sparkly, regulating fraternal twin siblings. Where triggers are cues that something dangerous or stressful is happening, glimmers are cues that the body and brain are having a feeling of pleasantness, safety, and connection.
Everybody and every body is different, so glimmers will feel different from person to person, but in general, they are those warm and fuzzy feelings where you feel cozy, safe, and at peace. They can spark a sense of joy, calmness, neutrality, pleasantness, awe, or belongingness.
Glimmers can be both internal and external- from a thought of a wonderful memory or situation to a song that you love. In fact, one person’s glimmer could be another person’s trigger (more on triggers in another newsletter). Finding glimmers can be beneficial because purposely noticing these moments where you feel safe can help your body and your ventral vagus nerve recognize the feeling of groundedness and connectedness.
So, how can we find our glimmers? To answer that, let’s come back to Vonnegut’s quotation above: we look for what’s nice! For a simple way to integrate glimmers in your day, just try noticing something nice or pleasant in your day - a first sip of coffee, a pleasingly shaped tree, or a big, fluffy cloud. For me, I’m loving fresh summer strawberries, a big ice cream cone on a hot day, a new book, and the beautiful wildflowers. It doesn’t have to be anything groundbreaking, just a little flicker of something “nice!” Just by observing it and naming to ourselves that it’s pleasant, we get a little pop of goodness in our nervous system that reminds us that we are safe.
We can also practice touching into deeper glimmers that help support your vagus nerve. For some people, this might be super easy and you might be able to quickly list several glimmers. For others, especially those with trauma, you may have to take a step back and do some grounding exercises. Take a quiet moment to yourself where you step back from distractions and close your eyes.
I encourage you to spend some time this coming week thinking about or making a list of the glimmers in your life. Remember, for tiny sparks toward more resilience, glimmers are what it’s about. The most powerful glimmer or most peaceful feeling can be found in the smallest moment. Wishing you many glimmers!
Feel free to join me on Tiktok, Instagram, or Youtube where I share my thoughts, and you’re welcome to share your glimmers!
Sending tiny sparks of wellness your way,