Glimmers Are the (Unofficial) Opposite of Triggers. Here’s How Keeping a Log of Them Affected My Mental Health
I was walking in Bushwick while clutching a gallon-sized glass jar full of rolled oats, and my phone was dead, and nothing could've been better. The sun had cracked open and dripped yellow and yolky across an empty blue sky, and the M train ricocheted across the raised train platform; a group of black sparrows shimmered around the train.
That moment was the first thing I jotted down after seeing a TikTok about the idea of glimmers. The burgeoning concept was basically the emotional, physical opposite of feeling triggered. It got me thinking. What is the opposite of fear? Could "safe" be a feeling? I pondered over this for a week or so until I decided I would keep a log of things that sent a safe, warm shiver up my spine. Moments that said, You're safe here, this is your home, your life, nothing is trying to harm you, this good feeling? You deserve it. All you need to do is let it happen to you.
If a trigger is a switch in your nervous system to defend against a former trauma, then a glimmer is whatever causes a counter-stress response in the autonomic nervous system, says Ling Lam, PhD, MFT, professor in counseling psychology, a licensed therapist, and author of the TedX talk "The Power of Feeling Safe." "Examples include petting a loved animal, giving or getting a hug, thinking of a happy memory, stretching and yoga, putting your hand on your heart, self-care acts, keeping a gratitude journal, taking deep breaths," he says. Dr. Lam adds that our overall mental health depends on the relative ratio of glimmers to triggers. Just by living in this world, it's impossible to avoid triggers, especially if you experience racism, homophobia, or oppression that can't simply be turned off because you're burnt out. There are definitely psychological benefits to logging positive experiences like glimmers. It can train the mind to look for them more and to get better at noticing them, Dr. Lam explains.
I thought maybe a glimmer would have to be some sort of immaculately beautiful moment: perhaps reaching the finish line of a marathon or being told "I love you" for the first time. But when I thought about it more, those things are scary and beautiful. The safest moments, for me, ended up being small, beautiful proof that the life I have built serves me and keeps me safe.
The safest moments, for me, ended up being small, beautiful proof that the life I have built serves me and keeps me safe.
When I stabbed a soggy USPS box with scissors, my hand clawing the tape away from that split in the middle, excitement bubbled up my chest and spilled across my face in a smile. This glimmer came in the form of two small ceramic spice jars shaped like tiny houses. One had yellow painted bricks, a blue roof, and a small pink door. You could have a whole village of seasonings, a church for paprika, a bakery for cumin, a colonial two-story for fennel.
Another glimmer: Even after taking medicine for seven years, I was still losing my orange rattling pill bottles under my bed. When I dumped my pills in each little house, I felt that glimmer shimmy through my body: Here is the life you have built for yourself. Here is almost a decade of trying to find the right balance. You've made it. Your home for yourself is in the way you return to take your meds, setting your alarm to wake up, care for yourself.
A trigger is like an iceberg: an innocuous thing that could mean nothing to someone, but to you it’s a symbol of a traumatic event. Triggers are personal, scary, and challenging, but there is always hope for healing from trauma, big and small. Maybe you can't return to a certain cafe or train stop because of a particular incident, but it is possible that you won't always feel this way. It's not irrational or unreasonable to guard yourself against triggering environments, conversations, or experiences while you heal from what you have experienced.
I had worked hard to get here, and the glimmers came to me like tiny rolled-up love letters from my past self, clipped to the ankles of time-traveling carrier pigeons. The difference between logging my glimmers and a gratitude list was the fact of knowing what my triggers were. The way that I once spent an entire night awake sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, staring at a bare mattress—terrified after a recent bed bug scare.
Glimmers can’t protect me from moving through the world. In a way, my brain has a list of triggers going. The man shouting from his car, "Get the fuck out of the way, you disgusting fat piece of shit,” would take superhuman nerves of steel to ignore entirely. The exercise started to have a unique ability to expand my perception of moving through the world. I could acknowledge things that were challenging, and lean on these Glimmers as reminders of the good.
When I first started to record my glimmers, I went from an empty page, racking my brain, vibrating with too much Dunkin’ Bold Brew caffeine in my system. Lam says that your brain is good at finding what it’s looking for. I am good at looking out for things that could trip my wires, but was I good at finding those shiny coins in the sand, the things that said that my life was safe and built for me to thrive in? It turns out, slowly, that I could be good at seeing that shiny edge of sweetness in the smallest moments. Hard things haven’t gone away, but being able to list good things, over and over, gave my life a shimmer that I didn’t realize was already there—waiting for me to notice. It felt, over time, like the crinkly pages with my scribbles of cursive were their own small jewelry box, each glimmer a piece I tucked away in the folds of my brain.
The bloom of a dollop of miso paste that I dropped into a pot of just bubbling water, the steamrolling up and hitting my sick sinuses became proof I knew that I could care for myself; count on myself to eat when I was hungry. Glimmer.
The way my short hair can be slicked back and gelled, after I spent years afraid of what it would mean if I cut my long, curly hair. Without a place to hide, somehow I was much more me. Here I was standing in front of a mirror, binder flattening my chest beneath my shirt, gel holding my hair to my head. I had done the thing I always feared—and I was happier. Glimmer.
Wearing my hair this way to the bar and seeing the crush that I knew was moving to Virginia, but I stayed anyway. After waking up in her bed, I gazed upon the skyline of Brooklyn. It looked as though overnight, it had been dusted with flour from a sifter. She stood over me with a bitter cold brew made exactly how I liked it. "I am glad you stayed over," she said. Glimmer. It wasn't something the old me would have done: accept an offer to stay, rest my head on her chest, fall asleep on her, see in the morning that it had snowed overnight, let her wake up before me and get me coffee. I dropped an earring of mine in a dish on her dresser on my way out, for her to find later. Glimmer.
A lot of people mock what they see as the lack of resilience of "snowflake millennials" who are "triggered" by something innocuous or simple. But it takes a lot of bravery to face trauma, live through it, protect yourself from it, and identify why the certain smell of a particular musky orchid cologne on a stranger takes you out of the middle of brunch.
It takes trust to say that a moment makes me feel safe. That it makes me believe that I didn't deserve the bad things that happened to me. The way that the sun peeks through my curtain and lands on my cheek is a gift I am worthy of receiving.
It takes a lot of love to walk down the street, decaf pistachio iced latte in one hand, dead phone in my pocket, giant glass jar of rolled oats from a zero-waste store, and think, At this moment, I couldn't be safer. At this moment, I couldn't possibly love myself any more.
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