You're sitting by a window on a rainy afternoon, wrapped in a soft blanket and engrossed in a captivating book. The rhythmic tapping of raindrops against the windowpane creates a soothing
background melody, while the cozy ambiance makes you forget about the passage of time.
This simple moment holds the essence of a glimmer – a brief experience that instantly makes you feel connected to the world around you, evoking a sense of comfort and joy. Glimmers will feel a little different in everyone's bodies, but they're generally those warm-and-fuzzy feelings where you’re cozy and content.
According to the increasingly popular book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation by Deb Dana, in our overstimulated worlds, these content moments are not just pleasant and comforting, but they may be the answer to regulating our overwhelmed nervous systems.
In fact, the concept of glimmers gained so much attention that there are hundreds of articles online and more than 7.1 million posts with the tag #glimmers on TikTok that teach you how to find glimmers and use them to relieve stress. But is there strong scientific evidence behind this idea?
In this article, we'll explore:
What Are Glimmers?
A glimmer is considered as the opposite of a trigger. While triggers are things that bring up strong and sometimes uncomfortable feelings, glimmers are like “sparks” that bring up positive and comforting emotions.
For example, a sudden loud noise might trigger a feeling of anxiety, while the sound of a favorite song on the radio could be a glimmer that lifts your spirits.
This concept is rooted in the Polyvagal theory that was coined by behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges and introduced in 1995.
The Polyvagal theory is supposed to help us understand how our bodies and feelings are connected. For example, imagine your body has three ways to react: feeling calm and safe, getting ready for action, or feeling frozen and distant.
Glimmers are like moments when you start to feel better after being upset. Maybe someone says something nice, or you see something you like. According to the book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, these moments can actually help your body switch from the upset mode to the calm and safe mode.
Some examples of glimmers are receiving a genuine compliment from a friend or family member, enjoying a beautiful sunset or a peaceful moment in nature, and receiving a surprise act of kindness from someone.
But is there scientific evidence that this concept is actually helpful in reducing stress?
Even though the Polyvagal theory received praise from prominent figures in the field of traumatic stress, such as Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, and Peter Levine, a growing number of scientists are pointing to evidence that refutes its main premises.
Is the Concept of “Glimmers” Grounded in Science?
While there's been debate and disproval of Polyvagal theory on which the concept of glimmers is based, the specific concept of "glimmers" has yet to be scientifically measured, leaving us uncertain about how and why it may be effective. There is still a need for further research in this area.
But in order to better understand the concept, we need to dive deeper into the main premises of the Polyvagal theory.
Polyvagal theory centers upon the vagus nerve, a nerve that extends from the brain stem (a brain link to your body, managing digestion, breathing, heart rate, and more) to the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.
According to Porges, this nerve has two parts: a ventral part, which helps in regulating emotions and social engagement and is thus associated with relaxation and optimal physiological functioning` and a dorsal part, which supports defensive immobilization in response to fear, or the “freeze” responses.
According to The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, glimmers are cues that move the body into the ventral vagal state: that feeling of safety and connection.
Polyvagal theory relies on the concept that the ventral and dorsal vagal regions have distinct roles in controlling heart rate to mediate these different responses. However, while the overall function of the vagus nerve is not in dispute, current research shows this underlying concept not to be true.
This doesn't necessarily invalidate the concept of glimmers, but it does highlight the need for further research to better understand how these cues work and their precise impact on our state of safety and connection.
Can Glimmers Help You Reduce Stress?
Despite the lack of scientific proof that glimmers can help in reducing stress and improving overall wellbeing, the idea of a glimmer remains an intriguing and positively framed concept. It is widely agreed that the notion of actively seeking out moments of joy has the potential to shift our perspective and improve our mood.
On the other hand, there’s a different view when it comes to this concept, as noted by the philosopher Alan Watts when referring to “The Backwards Law” and explained by the author Mark Manson. Manson notes that “The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
Nevertheless, while there's no proven harm in looking for glimmers, consulting an expert and pursuing a personalized approach is crucial, as well as exploring proven and effective strategies to reduce stress and improve mental health.
In this way, you can strike a balance between exploring innovative concepts like glimmers and ensuring that you receive the necessary support and guidance.
Exploring the Potential Benefits of Glimmers: 4 Tips to Get Started
While there are known tools and strategies for identifying and utilizing glimmers as a potential mental health resource, it's important to view them as potentially valuable assets rather than sole solutions. This perspective is especially important given the limited research available on the concept.
But if you do want to explore the potential benefits of glimmers, these four techniques might help you recognize and embrace them:
1) Pay attention to what excites you: Try to ask yourself, "What am I doing when I feel most engaged and alive?" If you feel excited or energized about something, that may be a sign that it is a glimmer to you. Or think about times when you felt particularly happy or fulfilled. What was happening during those moments?
2) Set a "glimmer intention": Setting a specific intention to find a glimmer shifts your focus to actively seeking positive experiences. If your glimmer is being in nature, you may decide to look for one glimmer on your daily walk. Try to be specific when planning out your search quest and define the time and place in advance. This way, when the planned moment occurs, there is no need to make a decision. You won't leave it up to chance and hope that you'll feel motivated at the right time – you'll follow your plan.
3) Keep a "glimmer journal": Write down what you discovered and reflect at the end of the day. A glimmer journal is a tangible way to capture and celebrate the little sparks of joy, inspiration, and positivity that can sometimes go unnoticed.
4) Find a "glimmer buddy": When you have a glimmer buddy, you might be more likely to stick to your intention of finding glimmers. Knowing that you'll be sharing your experiences can encourage you to actively seek out positive moments. Furthermore, your glimmer buddy might have creative suggestions for finding glimmers that you haven't thought of, and this exchange of ideas keeps the journey fresh and exciting.
In the ever-evolving mental health landscape, it's good to remain open to exploring new trends and concepts that might enhance your wellbeing. However, this journey should be approached with care, discernment, and critical thinking.
Not all trends are backed by scientific evidence, and what works for one person may not work for another. So, the most responsible course of action is to consult a mental health professional who can provide personalized guidance and support tailored to your unique needs.
Remember, your mental health is a precious aspect of your overall well-being, and it's worth investing the time and effort to ensure you're following practices that are not only trendy but genuinely beneficial for your mental and emotional health.
By striking a balance between curiosity and caution, you can embark on a safe journey of self-discovery. May it be filled with glimmers!
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About the author:
Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.
About the reviewer:
Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Deborah A. Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Porges SW. The Polyvagal Theory: phylogenetic contributions to social behavior. Physiol Behav. 2003 Aug;79(3):503-13. doi: 10.1016/s0031-9384(03)00156-2. PMID: 12954445.
Grossman P, Fundamental challenges and likely refutations of the five basic premises of the polyvagal theory, Biological Psychology, Volume 180, 2023, 108589, ISSN 0301-0511,