Reflections on Healing: triggers and glimmers

Reflections on Healing: triggers and glimmers

There is little doubt that you will have come across the word ‘trigger’ over the last few years. In short, triggers are cues around us that signal to our system a potential threat. They can be obvious, but they can also be so subtle we might not even be aware of them, yet we suddenly find ourselves sweating with anxiety for no apparent reason. Now more than ever before, the subject of mental health and trauma awareness is in the public realm and in government focus, and that can only be a good thing. The understanding of how events from our past can impact our emotional responses in the present is becoming widely discussed in mainstream culture, enabling much more understanding about how to identify and work with our trigger points.

Trauma to some degree happens to all of us at some point, and it can teach us survival skills. When someone encounters a trigger, the amygdala (responsible for emotional and instinctual responses) gets activated. At the same time, the frontal lobe (the rational, thinking part ) becomes less active. This, in turn, causes the fight, flight, fawn or freeze response, and we are then less able to respond objectively to a situation.

Getting triggered can be a horrible experience, causing panic attacks, trouble sleeping, mood swings, shaking, stomach pain, breathlessness, sweating, nausea and the feeling that you might die. It can feel like the original trauma is happening all over again. Triggers are unique to each individual and can be anything from an anniversary, a physical environment, a sudden or loud noise, or even the tone of someone’s voice or a smell.

Here’s the thing: if a traumatic event happens and you have a negative response, and then when the event is over, the mind processes it, understands it and transforms it into a lesson learned, then it becomes life wisdom, though often it takes a few goes before you are able to use this precious wisdom. But if for whatever complex reason, the trauma event happens and you are not able to process the experience and learn from it – maybe you were too young at the time to understand or assimilate what was happening – the event becomes frozen in you, stored in the limbic system as unresolved trauma. When you encounter a trigger, it sends you into an emotional reaction just as if the original thing was happening.

Happily, there is an opposite to triggers – wonderful things called ‘glimmers’. I discovered this phenomenon on my healing journey, I just didn’t know they had an official name. I used to call them ‘pieces of goodness’, but as I am a great fan of any kind of glimmer, I now go with that. The phrase comes from the book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana, a clinical social worker specialising in complex trauma, and refers to small moments when we feel a sense of connection, safety, and regulation, which cues our nervous system to feel calm.

Something good happens when you find a glimmer: a sense of sparkle, ease, rightness, joy, and a knowing that your world is OK in that moment. In the same way that our trauma triggers are individual, so are our glimmers, and it’s crucial to find both. Some of my favourite glimmers are found in rainbows, flowers opening, a kind smile from a stranger, my favourite song playing, a flock of long-tailed tits on my bird feeder or the woodpecker visiting, lying in the grass watching insects. Finding glimmers is good for everyone, not just if you are a trauma survivor. Children can be exceptionally good at finding them; it’s a great game. Dana advocates setting a “glimmer intention”, where you decide, for example, how many glimmers you will find before lunchtime or bedtime. Once you begin looking for glimmers, you will see them more and more as the nervous system keeps searching for them (the frequency illusion). So, it’s easy to train yourself to find these moments in your day – delightful glimmers that bring a sense of wellbeing to the whole system. Do it as a family or in the office and share to create a group glimmer. The mind always looks for distraction to avoid feeling pain, but it also looks for the healing path. It wants to question the original belief that came with the trauma with curiosity and calmness. It wants you to be happy.

Glimmers are cues that signal safety, deep connection and oneness with the world. They bring us back into our window of tolerance and give a moment of hope. Looking for glimmers doesn’t discount past trauma, but it allows balance in and helps us find moments of joy and safety. I am such a fan of writing as a healing tool, so keep a little book and fill it with your glimmers, pages and pages of them, big and small. Write them, draw them, and go back and read repeatedly when needed. It’s summer now, so I guess some of them might be to do with the feel of sun warmth in the bones, the sound of the sea, bright summer colours – all flickers of comfort. Happy glimmering!

There is always a glimmer in those who have been through the dark.” Atticus 


Lizzie Mae Smith is a yoga teacher, homeopath, student of Ayurveda, writer and grandmother. She loves supporting and guiding people to their full creative potential. On Instagram @lizzie_mae_smith

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