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James Hewitt
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Find out how you can use your eyes to de-stress on demand

Many people are looking for fast, effective ways to manage their stress. Find out how you can apply a simple technique to de-stress whenever you need to, simply by shifting the focus of your eyes to change how you view your environment.

Even before the pandemic, 75% of adults reported that they felt stressed. More recently, a YouGov survey, including participants from 16 countries, suggested that the vast majority of respondents felt their mental health had been negatively affected by Covid-19 (1). I’ve often written about the benefits of scheduling time to switch off and recover and described the stress management benefits of exercise. While these approaches are effective, sometimes we don’t have the time or even the energy to put them into practice. However, emerging research suggests that we can take advantage of the association between our field of vision and our nervous system to de-stress on-demand.

How our vision directly affects our experience of stress

Our vision directly affects our experience of stress. A significant amount of work relating to this observation is being driven by a lab run by Andrew Huberman, who has contributed to a growing body of evidence that our eyes may be the most potent drivers of what we think, feel and do (2–4). This relationship is based on the fundamental role of our eyes in setting our level of alertness or sleepiness. This calibration of alertness subsequently influences our levels of stress and performance.

For example, Huberman’s lab has described how brain pathways connected with fear respond specifically to visual threats (5). While this research was conducted in mice, the association between stressful situations and changes in the movements of human eyes is well described in the literature, and you have probably noticed it yourself.

Staying ‘locked on’ for too long means that many people are chronically over-activated

Take a moment to think about what happens if you notice a threat in your environment. For example, imagine what would happen if someone jumped out in front of you as you walked along the street. Your field of vision constricts, and you may have the sense of being ‘zoomed in’ while everything in your peripheral vision becomes blurry. While you would not be aware of it at a conscious level, your pupils will dilate, and the position of the lens in your eye will change to focus on a single location as your brain attempts to assess the threat in as much detail as possible. At the same time, this narrow focus will activate your sympathetic, fight or flight nervous system, tensing muscles in your upper body and sending a cascade of neurotransmitters flooding through your veins as your body prepares to react.

The problem for many of us is that we often end up spending our entire days in this state of activation, locked-on, staring into people’s eyes, watching people staring at us, as we cycle through a seemingly endless series of video-conference meetings while juggling countless other competing demands.

Changing how you view your environment can help you to de-stress

What can we do? Simply changing how you view your environment can profoundly affect your body, brain, and how you feel. Fixating on a single point with a narrow field of view activates our sympathetic nervous system. In contrast, if we widen our field of vision to take in a panorama, particularly if we are moving, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and our level of activation decreases.

Generate optic flow

Imagine how you feel when you watch the scenery pass by while you’re sitting on a train or when you go for a bike ride and take a moment to appreciate the views while you coast down a hill. These experiences relate to the phenomenon of ‘optic flow’, which describes how our brain processes the signals from our eyes when we move through an environment, enabling us to realize that it is us, not the environment, that is moving. The relationship between optic flow and activation of our parasympathetic nervous system means that we can use our vision as a way to reduce our level of stress.

Shift your vision to ‘landscape mode.’

The advice to put this theory into practice, as is often the case, is intuitive. Still, it’s interesting to understand more about the mechanisms underpinning why these simple techniques can be effective. Next time you are looking for a way to de-stress, take a moment to pay attention to where you are looking. Are you in ‘portrait mode’, locked into a single point in your environment? If so, remind yourself to shift your eyes to ‘landscape mode’. Taking a short walk around, even if you are only looking out of your window, provides an opportunity to influence your physiology directly and de-stress on demand.

References

1. Jacobs, E. and Warwick-Ching, L. (2021) Feeling the strain: stress and anxiety weigh on world’s workers. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/02d39d97-23ed-45ff-b982-7335770ae512

2. Dhande OS, Estevez ME, Quattrochi LE, El-Danaf RN, Nguyen PL, Berson DM, et al. Genetic dissection of retinal inputs to brainstem nuclei controlling image stabilization. J Neurosci. 2013;33(45):17797–813.

3. Huberman AD, Wei W, Elstrott J, Stafford BK, Feller MB, Barres BA. Genetic Identification of an On-Off Direction-Selective Retinal Ganglion Cell Subtype Reveals a Layer-Specific Subcortical Map of Posterior Motion. Neuron. 2009;62(3):327–34.

4. Cruz-Martín A, El-Danaf RN, Osakada F, Sriram B, Dhande OS, Nguyen PL, et al. A dedicated circuit linking direction selective retinal ganglion cells to primary visual cortex. Nature. 2014;507(7492):358–61.

5. Salay LD, Ishiko N, Huberman AD. A midline thalamic circuit determines reactions to visual threat. Nature. 2018;557(7704).

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