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.
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.
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.