Are ‘glimmers’ the secret to reducing stress?

They may sound otherworldly, but glimmers are simply everyday moments that spark a positive reaction in our minds and bodies. Here’s how to add some to your life.

You probably know about triggers.

They’re those things we encounter occasionally that cause emotional reactions – usually negative ones – based on past experiences.

Some cause bigger reactions than others and it’s not uncommon for serious ones to come with “trigger warnings”.

But have you heard of “glimmers”?

While triggers activate the sympathetic nervous system to spark our fight-or-flight mode even when a real threat isn’t present, glimmers do the opposite.

They activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) via the vagus nerve, which carries signals between your brain, heart and gut, to deliver feelings of safety and calm.

Keeping your vagus nerve in good shape can help you respond more effectively to everyday stress, so encountering glimmers regularly is a good idea.

Where to find glimmers

Just as triggers are personal, glimmers can be too, based on things that cued a sense of feeling safe, cared for or peaceful, in your past.

It might be a song, a smell or a place.

But there are some universal glimmers too – and typically, they’re things that inspire awe.

Described as an emotion that helps us think about ourselves in the grand, rather than small, scheme of things, awe has been shown to directly affect the vagus nerve to stimulate that all-important PNS activity.

A 2023 study has shown that awe boosts resilience and makes work stressors seem less daunting.

Lead author of the study Assistant Professor Casher Belinda says that people experience awe when they undergo something vast, something that challenges their understanding or way of thinking about things.

“These experiences can come in different forms, whether physical such as when witnessing aurora borealis, or conceptual, such as when grasping the implications of a grand theory,” Prof Belinda says.

Awe can also be linked to feeling other “big” emotions like profound gratitude, but even sleep can trigger awe.

“Dreams are conceptually vast experiences that have a striking capacity to elicit feelings of awe,” he says.

How to have an awe-some experience

Joining the dots between your dreams and reality is one way to create a sense of awe, but there are loads of other accessible ways to have an awe-based, PNS-stimulating glimmer moment. You could:

Take an ‘awe walk’

An “awe walk” is a 15-minute stroll where you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward, paying close attention to things you might not have noticed before.

People who did that once a week as part of a 2020 study reported experiencing more positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives.

Catch a sunrise

Or a sunset. A study from the UK’s University of Exeter confirms their effectiveness.

Lead author Alex Smalley says the research indicates that getting up a bit earlier for sunrise or timing a walk to catch sunset could be well worth the effort.

“The ‘wow’ factor associated with these encounters might unlock small but significant bumps in feelings of beauty and awe, which could in turn have positive impacts for mental wellbeing,” Alex says.

Find a tree and look up

Research from the University of California Berkeley shows that simply standing at the base of a tall tree and looking up into its branches for one minute is enough to cultivate awe.

Write all about it

Another study shows how revisiting a moment where you personally felt awe and then putting pen to paper about it, delivers real-time feelings of awe.

Watch an uplifting documentary

It might be one from David Attenborough’s stable or about someone doing something incredible – engaging with “awe videos” is another way to boost awe.

More mental health boosters:

Written by Karen Fittall.