Triggers and Glimmers

This blog post continues the “series of 2” on abandonment with a surprise third post. After reading my recent blog posts about abandonment (see links here and here), a friend encouraged me to explore Glimmers. And being the research geek that I am, that meant going down a rabbit hole into the science, which this post shares. Also to note, a big part of my retirement transition has been self-discovery and this series on abandonment fits into that arena!

Triggers send us into a survival mode, with our preferred defense mechanism, even if/when there is no real threat of danger. Glimmers bring us back into our safe and calm zone (aka the Ventral Vagal state – more about this below).

Triggers can be smells, sounds, places, people (individuals or their actions), or words. They make you feel insecure, excluded, not valued. Glimmers are the same things, but do the exact opposite – make you feel secure, included, valued.

Our innate negativity bias means we are more likely to be watching for and understanding our triggers than our glimmers! Both of my posts on abandonment focused on triggers. Yet, knowing both your triggers and your glimmers is important.

The Science
Early traumatic events and the response we had at the time can be held in the body in the Autonomic Nervous System’s response. The responses of the Autonomic Nervous System are normal and natural towards actual threatening events. However, when perceived threats are not really there (aka triggered), then the (inappropriate) response can create disconnection. And a continued the state of survival response (triggers felt everywhere) can cause chronic stress in the body.

The vagus nerve of the Autonomic Nervous system is the mind-body information highway, constantly, without conscious awareness, sensing and communicating whether we are safe or threatened. It connects the brain to the gut – hence “gut feelings.” When a threat is perceived (real or not), it will either mobilize energy in the Sympathetic branch of the nervous system (call to action – fight or flight) or conserve energy in the Parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (call to inaction – freeze or fawn).

A healthy vagal tone has a balance between the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System actions. We can easily move from an excited state to a relaxed state and quickly recover from a stressful situation. When the perception of threat is more constant (perceptions of threats when not really there), the vagal tone can become weak or out of balance.

The Sympathetic branch of the nervous system is the flight or fight response call to action. There is also a release of stress hormones – adrenaline, cortisol – to allow for that action. At the threat trigger, there can be feelings of unease, anger, restlessness, frustration, irritation, or a desire to escape. [Beyond the threatening situation response, the Sympathetic Nervous System is also engaged in exercise, exertion, and emotional and sexual arousal. It manages our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.]

The Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous system has two circuits – ventral vagal and dorsal vagal.

The Ventral Vagal Complex is our feeling of social connectivity and our thriving state of being. It is when we feel safe, grounded, and connected to others. It is when we feel we are known, understood, validated, and secure. We are calm, hopeful, and curious. We feel organized and productive. We sleep well and have time to play. It controls our facial expression, tone of voice, ability to listen to others, and our ability to pick up on emotional nuances. It’s the sparkle in our eyes and the warmth of our smile.

The Dorsal Vagal Complex responds to perceived threat (real or not) causing us to freeze and give up, have a sense of hopelessness, feel helpless or trapped, and even physical collapse or numbness. It is lack of action, immobilization, and dissociation. We can feel like a misfit, feel invisible, unable to talk or have no energy. The Dorsal Vagal Complex is also associated with the stomach, spleen, kidney, liver, lungs, and intestines.

When we feel safe and grounded, the Parasympathetic Nervous System facilitates rest, relaxation, digestion, and our immune system. We are thriving in the pathways of connection in the Ventral Vagal Complex.

Trigger Response
When we feel threatened/unsafe we move into pathways of protection; our first level of response is the Sympathetic Nervous System. We feel anxious, panicky, agitated and look to action (fight or flight). The second level of response to feeling threat is the Dorsal Vagal Complex response. We move to inaction (freeze or fawn). As noted in my previous post, many individuals have a dominant pairing in reaction to perceived but not real threats – mine is usually flight /fawn.

Understanding the body’s signals to feeling threatened (including perception when no threat is really there) can help you identify when you’ve been triggered! These signals include tightness in the chest, sinking feeling in the stomach, knot in the throat, or chronic feeling of exhaustion.

Glimmers can help restore the Ventral Vagal Complex after a trigger. Glimmers are small things that spark joy, bring a sense of calm or ease, and are micro-moments of goodness. They bring a sense of calmness and peace.

Identifying your personal glimmers is key. If it’s a certain kind of music, create your glimmer playlist. If it’s certain scent, get the essential oils or candles. If it is nature, plan the walks at the park, time in the garden or looking at the night sky. Is it your pet? A certain person’s voice? A favorite stuffed animal? Be ready with your glimmer cues for when you are triggered.

One of the retirement transition tools I’ve used is Jolts of Joy – little things you can add to your daily life that bring you joy. (Link here to my very first post on this tool.) For me, one of those was fine-tip, blue pens and a certain kind of journal, which I now use every morning, starting my day with a bit of joy. I recently reviewed my own Jolts of Joy list to think about which items were also Glimmers, things that brought me a sense of calmness, safety, and inclusion. I need to know what my Glimmers are and have them ready for when I’m next triggered!

Another way to restore Ventral Vagal Complex is mobilizing the body to release cortisol buildup (a key element of response mechanism) with actions like shaking arms, rubbing hands together, physical contact on face neck and arms, rocking the body. Deep belly laughter also stimulates body movement. And humming has calming effects on the body also. So beyond Glimmers, these tools can help ease a trigger response.

Building stronger mindfulness skills can strength the Ventral Vagal Complex, improving the speed of a return (recovery) to that state; mindfulness can also help you recognize that the perceived threats are not really there. Developing somatic skills like breath work, mindful movement, meditation, or yoga builds mindfulness.

A How To recap – moving forward from childhood abandonment trauma

  • Acknowledge remnants of historical threats that are still held in the body’s nervous system response. It is common to have defenses against this acknowledgement – denial, repression, or minimization of the trauma.
  • Compassionately have conversation with your inner child to let go of the fear of abandonment (or other childhood trauma) as that fear no longer serves you. Traumatic response pattern are familiar and letting them go can feel overwhelming. It can often be easier to not change!
  • Learn your triggers so you can avoid them or at least recognize them – what are your perceived cues of abandonment (or other childhood trauma)?
  • Shut down (recover from) trigger response with Glimmers – Know your glimmers and have them ready.
  • Strengthen the Ventral Vagal Complex with breath work and yoga.

And to help others, here’s a real life example on triggers and glimmers:

Learn your triggers – some of My Triggers:

  • Being left out of activities or ignored by friends – perceived rejection
  • Not recognized/ appreciated for a contribution
  • Any criticism that I did something wrong or am not smart/competent enough
  • Hearing expectations that I’m not meeting

Know your glimmers – true Glimmers for me:

  • Writing to do lists and doing check-offs
  • Morning journaling (those blue pens!)
  • Re-reading a romance novel
  • Spending time gardening
  • Snuggling in soft comfortable clothes or my soft fuzzy throw blanket
  • An indulgence like a vanilla shake, soft serve ice cream, or cream soda

In a recent situation, my sequence of triggers went as follows: I heard “You did it wrong” and then “I know better, you’re incompetent”. And then finally “You don’t belong”. Quite the trifecta! And what was my reaction? First Flight (I literally left the room), then surprisingly Fight (an angry outburst), then as the tightness in my chest intensified, I went into Freeze (pulling back into own shell, apathy). I didn’t use my Glimmers (this situation was before this research), but I hope next time, with this glimmer knowledge in hand, I’ll recover faster.

Do you know your own Triggers? And now, as important – do you know your own Glimmers?

Picture Credit: My best picture this week is of a teapot yard art craft I made.

18 thoughts on “Triggers and Glimmers

  1. I also have a Jolts of Joy list, Pat. I think it’s time to revisit and update that list. I hadn’t really connected it to helping me recover from a trigger. I like that idea. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christie, I had not made the link either… but I will definitely be trying it. I needed to think about my Jolts of Joy with the “what is calming, safe, inclusive” as well as joyful. That subset list was smaller. And now, I’ll need to use that short-list going forward to see if it does help.


  2. When we know what is happening to us (triggers) and understand them cognitively (even if not emotionally) it can help soothe. I have a tool that is an app and its about changing the story/thinking and from time to time its a useful tool. I love this learning you are doing and I am sharing my learning too. Thank you so much for linking your blog post up for Life’s Stories my fortnightly blogging link up at Denyse Whelan Blogs.

    I appreciate your support and continuing blogging connections and friendships.

    I will be back with the next #LifesStories link up on Monday 25 April 2022.



    1. Denyse, thanks for the reminder to link to your LifeStrories link up. I’ll try and remember it next time as well. And I agree that understanding this cognitively is helping me. I don’t spiral into the negative nearly as often as I used to as I am more aware of how i tend to “hear” things – my inner critic’s interpretation. And of course, I found the science fascinating!


    1. I think a “good mood” is being balanced in the Ventral Vagal! So yeah, when that happens, one is less likely to be triggered. And Yes, I also agree that the challenge is to not have the knee-jerk reaction. I’m catching mine more and more… they still start but I don’t spiral into them as much.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your “jolts of joy” reminded me of a realization I finally had while “making soap” instead of solving medical or worldly problems. Being able to bring “joy” to a task is very valuable and worthwhile. So the smell if detergent is valuable, and the creaminess of dish washing bubbles is valuable, etc. It’s also consistent with why “food deserts” isn’t the problem stopping healthy eating. When your income is low and you have to say No to everything your kid asks for, saying yes to a bag of chips is the one “jolt of joy” you can offer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting insight on soap and food. I try really hard to find alternative jolts of joy to food – but yes, a piece of chocolate or bag of chips can definitely help boost my mood!


      1. The food thing actually came from an NPR discussion on childhood obesity. It caught my attention since lack of grocery stores is often blamed for low income childhood obesity but this discussion was making the point that access to healthy food would not likely change obesity.


  4. Great blog. You know I love some good science! Just a side note funny – I know we don’t have to use a double space after the end of a sentence any more but I miss them. Anyway (notice the use of a double space), I haven’t really worked on my triggers or my glimmers but I believe my major trigger is anything that makes me “not good enough”. You know, the I’m not thin enough, I’m not smart enough,…….. Now for glimmers, I might need to do more research on that one. It’s funny, but I can’t think of even one. Aha! Singing! Jus for me – the right song for the right situation.
    As I’m trying to think of my glimmers, I realize comfort food is one and then realized those are glimmers for most people, even if the “comfort” food is different for different people. The reason they are called comfort food, right?
    They say we all have smells that are glimmers but I can’t really think of mine. I’ll have to think on that one.
    Prayer. Knowing I’m not in control, He is. Thanking Him for all He has given me. Listing those things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Candyse, I miss the double space as well. I read somewhere that sticking with it is a sign of not moving with the times! LOL. But yeah, when I type, I still often automatically do it!

      The not good enough is a big trigger for me, too. And I hear it even when it’s not there! My inner critic “interprets” things people say.

      It took some thinking to figure out what my glimmers were besides food! (I do not need to go there every time I need a glimmer.) What settles me down? What do I do to “regroup”? I didn’t have smells, although I love the smell of things cooking (bacon! bread!) and some flowers. But they really are not things that settle me. But when I hit on a couple (like re-reading an old romance novel), it was “yup!” You’ll figure it out… cuddling JoJo, talking with Catherine, a good workout?


  5. Hi Pat – that was a very scientific rabbit hole you went down – but it’s also nice to know that there is science behind this and not just hocus pocus/feel good stuff. For me, nothing beats a warm hug from my husband or a serve of hot chips. Both make me warm inside and help me feel like the world isn’t all bad. I’m getting better at figuring out what is an irrational thought and re-routing it – but sometimes the outside triggers need a hug and some reassurance that I’m not a crazy person! Great post and I may still write something about glimmers down the track – just because I love the word and the concept. (I’ll definitely link back to this post if I do write something.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leanne, The science was fascinating to me and I tried to simplify it to share some of the basics. It also made me then think through my own actions.

      Oh, it’s wonderful that a hubby hug is a glimmer for you! And hot chips! LOL. I could put that on there as well…. hot chips with dipping sauce for me though. Hmm, I just realized I did eat those 3 times after that situation I talked about…. oh dear. I tried hard to find things that were not food for my glimmer list – too many chips is not good for my wardrobe … my clothes are getting tight!


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