Stress and Vision Part II

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Vision Tips August/September 2005
By Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A.

When we are in danger we look around to find out about the possible threat and how we might respond. This is normal and healthy. If this process is interrupted and we are overwhelmed, we freeze. If this happens repeatedly, the unfinished stress becomes stored in the eye muscles. Chronically stressed eyes tend to be wide open and staring, with large pupils.

When we stare we don’t see well for two major reasons. One reason is because the visual system, like the other senses, only responds to change. For instance, with touch, if we are holding hands with someone in the movies and our hands have been completely still for a while, we really can’t tell where one hand ends and the other begins. We’ve lost the sense of exactly where our hand is. If we then move our hand even very slightly, both people feel that motion very clearly. So too, if you keep your eyes completely still they will stop sending information to the brain. It is extremely hard to hold the eyes absolutely stationary, but laboratory experiments have been performed that show this to be true. The eyes see by moving. When we stare, the natural motion of our eyes is slowed down and the brain does not receive the information it needs.

The other major reason staring interferes with good vision is that the mind is not attending to what we are seeing. If you remember staring out of a window, it’s as if you’ve fixed your eyes somewhere while going someplace else in your mind. One student described it as “parking her eyes while she went to Hawaii”. We often stare like that when we’re tired or when we’d rather be elsewhere. This is not a problem unless it becomes a habitual way of dealing with stress.

If you notice yourself staring, there are several things that you can do. In any order that fits the situation, blink your eyes and bring your mind and the world back into focus, let your eyes move around to find out about the possible threat and to see how you might respond. Our staring habit may have developed in childhood, being bored in school or uncomfortable in situations we were powerless to change; it’s a way of escaping from the sensations of stress and was probably a good resource at the time. Now as an adult, we have more options in these situations.

If you don’t see well it may be that you are chronically staring, that the habit has become a way of life, a way to disengage a little from the stresses of reality. If you want to undo that pattern you can practice a technique we call “nose painting”. Imagine you have an invisible paintbrush on the end of your nose that can lengthen and shorten as needed. Now move your head so you are moving the paintbrush around the edges of things, as if you were painting them. You can make broad-brush strokes or detailed ones. Let your mind attend to the point at the end of this brush. Your eyes will naturally follow your mind so there’s no need to think about them. You can use this to improve your vision at any distance. If you are doing it with print, brush across the line you want to read a few times. It will help you to see it more clearly.

Undoing the staring habit can take time; you are undoing your response to stress. Remember to take plenty of rest breaks and practice good seeing habits.

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