Find your glimmers to bring light to cancer recovery

Have you heard of “glimmers”? This is a term I just learned a few weeks ago, and have been reading about and thinking about ever since. As I understand it, the term was coined by Deb Dana, LCSW, a clinician, teacher, and expert in complex trauma. It comes from the Polyvagal Theory, as originally described by Dr Stephen Porges. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Everyone knows the term “triggers”, and it has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and honestly I think is a bit overused, which takes away some from its true meaning in psychology. Triggers are events, experiences, or other stimuli that initiate a traumatic memory or response in the body or mind, via the nervous system. So triggers literally trigger our nervous system to fly into fight or flight mode (or even freeze/fawn, which I’ll mention later) in an attempt to protect us from some subconscious/imagined trauma or threat. Often, however, there is no real threat in the present, only the memory of some past threat. But our bodies and our minds can’t tell the difference, and respond with the same cascade of stress hormones and other reactions as it would if we were in the middle of that same threat all over again. Think, for example, of feeling a sensation of nausea just walking into and smelling the oncology clinic, even though you’ve been finished with chemo for months. Or feeling the sensation of fear or dread as you wait for results from follow up testing, just like you were taken back to your original diagnosis all over again. Or the sensation of tension arise in your jaw or shoulders or the pit of your stomach just seeing some emotionally abusive co-worker or family member come up on you caller ID. We’ve all felt it. And those who have been through a truly traumatic experience tend to feel these even more strongly. Sometimes they can be literally crippling. And as I’ve mentioned, having cancer is officially considered a traumatic experience by the medical/psychiatric community. It may not be the same as traumas like childhood abuse, natural disaster, or violent assault, but it is a trauma nonetheless, and can result in similar types of responses in the body.

The good news is that there are also stimuli that can initiate a response from the balancing side, the rest and digest, or social connection, part of our nervous system. These are the Glimmers. So these are sortof the opposite of triggers. These are experiences, events, or other stimuli that “trigger”-but in a good way- our nervous system to respond with a cascade of the feel good chemicals and reactions, that leave us feeling safe, connected, at ease, relaxed, comforted, connected, and nourished. Think of your glimmers, be they internal or external. They could be things like the warm sun on your skin, the comforting voice of a loved one, the sound of birds chirping in the morning, the feeling of your own breath gently rising and falling, the smell of warm cookies just out of the oven, the feeling of freedom when you float in the ocean, your favorite old music, or the feeling of connection you have with your best friend or your yoga community. These stimuli cue safety and ease, opening us up to experience peace and joy in our daily lives. And the really great news is, they are all around us, if we just learn to tune them in.

Let’s come back to Polyvagal theory just for a moment. It isn’t super important to understand this background, but it is interesting and may help shed some clarity on how to identify more glimmers. It highlights the safety and community aspect of this story, which is particularly important for trauma survivors. The traditional understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and the way I generally think about it, divides the system into 2 parts: the sympathetic, or “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest”. These 2 sides of the nervous system act in concert to keep us balanced, with the sympathetic becoming activated in response to a stressor preparing our bodies to respond as needed, and then the parasympathetic engaging once the threat/stressor is neutralized to bring us back to balance and rest. Polyvagal theory posits that the parasympathetic side of the system can be further divided into 2 parts, the ventral vagal and the dorsal vagal branches. The ventral vagal branch is activated when we feel safety and social engagement, along with that traditional idea of rest and digest. So we are relaxed and at ease, but also feel safe and connected, and are able to be active and engaged without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Some might call this the flow state. Activation of the dorsal vagal branch, on the other hand, which is considered a more primitive part of the system, results in the extreme opposite end of rest and digest, in which we suffer depression or dissociation, complete shutdown or immobilization, perhaps like a possum playing dead. This state is sometimes called freeze or fawn. So in Polyvagal theory, we can operate and move through these 3 main states: 1. Ventral vagal, our ideal state of joyful engagement, 2. the traditional fight or flight where we are stressed, anxious, irritated or angry, or 3. the dorsal vagal, where we completely collapse and can’t function adequately. Phew, that was more than a moment! 😉 I explain this theory because I think that the safety and social connection aspect of Polyvagal theory is an important key in recovering from traumatic experiences and in learning to heal our nervous systems and return to wellness and joyful living.

That brings me to the next piece of good news! Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon of the human brain and nervous system adapting and changing, both functionally and structurally, in response to our experiences and our actions. In short, sortof like a muscle, neurons that get used frequently develop stronger connections and become even more active. Sadly, this can work against us in trauma response, in that these triggered emotions and reactions can become stronger the longer they continue to be stimulated. HOWEVER, the glimmers can too! Soooo, the point of all of this is that focusing on our glimmers, on moments and memories and experiences that make us feel safe and joyful, at ease and connected, can actually help our nervous systems heal from our traumas. These glimmers cue safety and remind our nervous systems that things are ok now, that the threat is in the past, that it is ok to let down our guard, to enjoy that sunset, or that quiet cup of tea. These glimmers can help us build resilience so that when we are triggered and fall into fear or anxiety, we have some tools to more quickly pull ourselves back out. If we know what our glimmers are, we know what to do. We do some relaxing breathing, or listen to our favorite old music, or maybe we make a few of those cookies, get out in nature, or go for a swim. We call up a loved one and are soothed by the glimmer of their voice, or we go to a yoga class or a support group and feel at ease in the company of our friends. And every time we focus on a glimmer, we strengthen that part of our nervous system that feels safe and at ease. And we train our brains to see and feel the hundreds of glimmers that are available to us in every day.

Glimmer on, my beautiful friends.

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