Focusing on PTSD Glimmers — Not Triggers — During the Holidays

Stacey, Russ, and their daughters smiling in front of a giant ice sculpture of Rudolph the Red Nose

What are glimmers and what do they have to do with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

I recently came across a meme on Facebook about the term “glimmer.” You probably already know that a PTSD trigger is something that reminds you of your trauma and cues your body to respond to a perceived threat with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn — things like loud fireworks, a very busy crowd, or debris on the side of the road. Well, a glimmer could be considered the opposite of a trigger. A glimmer cues your body that you are safe and you can feel calm and relaxed.

I did a little more research to understand what I was looking for. Glimmers are the little things that bring us joy calmly or peacefully. Miniature moments of connection and/or happiness. Some examples could be spending time in nature, listening to good music, seeing a rainbow, cuddling in a soft blanket, gardening, or the smell or taste of freshly baked bread. The term, glimmer, was created by licensed clinical social worker Deb Dana in her book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. She wanted patients to focus on how to grow and heal after trauma, rather than focus on triggers and reliving traumatic memories. She does this by using her expertise in complex trauma and her knowledge of polyvagal theory — the science of understanding the vagus nerve and how our body is connected to our ability to communicate and connect with others.

I started to notice my glimmers and I am lucky to have several. The comfort of home, the smell of cookies in the oven, doing puzzles, laughing with friends, dance parties in the living room, petting the dog, petting any dog, building Legos, making art, sewing, random acts of kindness …  The more I think about it, the more I realize that my glimmer list is very, very long. I started talking with my husband, Russ, about what his glimmer list might be, and he, too, had quite a list. We both realized our glimmers were usually while connecting with others or being creative … or both!

In the last few weeks, we have been doing more with our friends — visiting new exhibits, attending performing arts programming, playing board or video games, or just watching a beloved television show together. The simple act of connecting with our friends helps us feel more grounded. We also get to share laughs and create new and safe memories to relive instead of ruminating over our traumatic pasts. Looking back, it seems so simple but it does take effort to get out of the house, sometimes more than others if we are triggered or coming upon a traumatic anniversary.

The joy juice is worth the squeeze.
Even if it is temporary, the micro-moments of peace are welcome.

We also found that random acts of kindness are just the way we are wired. What does a random act of kindness look like for our family? For us, they are small gestures that show you care, such as holding a door, picking up litter, donating blood, donating to charity, getting involved in the community, or complimenting someone. There are many other examples but our daughters have started to do the same thing I do when we are out: randomly complimenting strangers. There were awesome outfits at the Renaissance Festival this fall and the girls were not shy about saying “That’s a cool costume!” aloud to a stranger. It's even better when the girls recognize an obscure character. We recognize the work these people put into their ‘look’ and we enjoy thanking them for sharing it with the world. And it’s not just costumes. We do it when we grocery shop, too. A cool hair color, a nifty shirt, or a festive sweater will get a shout-out because we can and because we usually make someone smile, which makes our day brighter.

Speaking of brighter, one big glimmer for me during this time of year is festive lights and decorations, especially if I happen to be in the car with our daughters. Hearing them “ooh” and “aah” at the simplest lights makes me smile. We are lucky to live near some pretty amazing local light shows … a glimmering glimmer on cold, dark winter nights. On especially tough days, I have loaded them in the car and driven around the neighborhood to see new or familiar “twinkle lights,” as they call them. It lifts all our spirits and helps bring a sense of calm to the evening routine.

I hope you can start to notice your glimmers and feel a glow of peace and calm this holiday season.