Stress and Vision Part I

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Vision Tips June/July 2005
By Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A.

Stress causes an automatic cycle to occur in the body; adrenaline is released into the blood stream and among other responses, the heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallower, blood flows away from the skin and digestive organs to the muscles of action. In the eyes, the pupils dilate, the lens focuses for distance seeing and the eyelids retract. We are preparing to fight or flee. Ideally, when the stress passes, our system resets to its original “ordinary state”.

However, if we are overwhelmed, our system doesn’t reset; it moves into another stage. It freezes. Freezing is a survival tactic, which allows us to appear unthreatening to a predator. It also allows us to dissociate so that if we are harmed, we won’t feel it. The degree to which this happens depends on the situation and the individual. When we freeze, all the natural stress responses are stored within our bodies. The muscles, which would otherwise help us to fight or flee, can’t discharge. They, and we, become chronically more tense as this pattern is repeated over time. We are coping but parts of us are compromised.

Visually, the muscles around the eyes, which under stress would be opening the lids wide and actively searching for where to aim or for routes of escape, may also become more tense and frozen. We all know the expression of someone who is in shock; they are wide-eyed and staring fixedly ahead. This is the expression of someone whose visual system is overwhelmed.

There are many ways vision can be overwhelmed. It may happen if we see something very frightening, like our car about to crash into a tree. It may be caused by something emotional or chronic and repetitive, like watching our parents fight night after night, or working under constant deadlines with the fear of losing our job. Whatever it is, for some people it is the eyes that are unable to fully discharge the stress.

If, for instance, trying to read or write a report is stressful, we are likely to strain the system by making it focus at near. (Remember, our stressed eyes are looking for a place to run to.) When we strain a muscle it becomes weaker unless we give it enough rest. The eye muscles we tend to strain are the ones that move the eyes around and the ones inside that focus the lens. We would also be less likely to blink because our eyelids are pulled back under stress. When we blink less, our eyes become dry and tire more quickly.

When you feel stressed, give your eyes extra rest and remember to blink. For specific resting techniques see Vision Tips in the October/November 2004 Earth Star.

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