Humans respond with exquisite sensitivity to emotional triggers in the world around us. Without even knowing it, we constantly pick up on cues of safety and danger, then respond accordingly. Triggers are cues around us that signal a potential threat. Their opposite, glimmers, are cues that signal safety.
Emotional triggers activate the two branches of our autonomic nervous system designed to deal with threats. First, the sympathetic nervous system sends us into fight or flight. Second, in the face of overwhelming danger, the dorsal vagal nervous system causes us to freeze or shut down. As a result, triggers create shifts toward anger, urges to get away or to shut down. These shifts can be subtle or sudden. We might be aware of these shifts, or we might not even notice them. Typically, movements happen without noticing the triggers themselves.
In contrast, glimmers activate our ventral vagal nervous system. Beautifully, they cause us to feel more relaxed and open to connecting with others, ourselves, and the world.
Responding to triggers and glimmers, the three branches of our nervous system reflect the level of danger and safety around us. Psychotherapist and author Deb Dana coined this use of the terms triggers and glimmers, working closely with Steven Porges, the neuroscientist who developed Polyvagal Theory. Porges’s theory explains how our autonomic nervous system responds in different ways to social and emotional situations. For more information about their work, visit the Polyvagal Institute.
Emotional Triggers in Relationships
The sudden appearance of a barking dog is an obvious trigger. Usually, however, triggers refer to subtle or unconscious cues that send our nervous system into a state of self-protection. In particular, humans are exquisitely sensitive to emotional triggers in relationships. As a result, triggers are often very subtle facial expressions, tones, vocal pacing, and body language.
Emotional triggers are personal and unique to each person’s nervous system. Our lifetime of distinct experiences shapes our nervous system. For one person, a specific smell might suddenly trigger an unconscious memory of childhood trauma. In another example, one person might have a stronger emotional trigger to being left out of a conversation than another because they have more history of rejection.
Examples of Triggers and Glimmers
Glimmers are less familiar to most people. At the same time, they are far more plentiful and beneficial to our sense of well-being. Indeed, they are everywhere, all the time. We enjoy glimmers through all our senses. Nature is one bountiful source. Notice how taking in the sun, winds, sky, rain, earth, trees, plants, flowers, birds, and animals can all produce a sense of happiness and well-being.
Our homes, workplaces, and buildings are a second, limitless source of glimmers of protection, comfort, and beauty. Taking in the smells and sights of cooking provides sensations of comfort. Looking further, consider how artistic decorations, the color and texture of fabrics, the supportive design of furniture, the comfort of a modern mattress, a stack of books, and music are all designed to provide us an abundance of glimmers.
Actively Noticing Glimmers Can Reduce Emotional Triggers
Third, we all have a profound source of glimmers within ourselves. Specifically, sensing our breathing, ability to walk, strength, dexterity, language, and intellect all bring feelings of safety and well-being. Lastly, people around are sources of glimmers. Let’s not forget the pets, too! Examples of these glimmers are a kind gaze, a smile, tilted head, acknowledgment, and receiving a response to our request. Cues we are seen and valued by those who matter most to us are so important we pick up on even the most subtle cues, like sparkle or uplift in another’s eyes.
Our nervous systems prioritize responding to triggers rather than glimmers. Nonetheless, meditation practitioners have known that we can turn this state of affairs around through conscious awareness for millennia. With practice, we can become more aware of and more responsive to the glimmers around us. As a side benefit to this practice, we can become increasingly less reactive to our triggers.
If you would like, take a moment to tune in through all your senses. See how many glimmers you can count.
If your emotional triggers still overwhelm your responses to situations in ways you don’t like, no problem. That’s why professional help is so widespread and available. If you do seek professional help, here are four reasons not to go it alone.