In today’s fast-paced world, stress is more prevalent than ever, and for many of us, our nervous systems are in a constant state of alert. Within this vein, yogis, meditation coaches, and influencers all tell us about breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation techniques. However, there's an often overlooked, and until several years ago somewhat unknown, connection between our eyes and our nervous system that can lead to relaxation: The extraocular muscles. By understanding and leveraging our extraocular muscles—the muscles responsible for controlling eye movements—we can tap into new techniques to soothe our nervous system. Stick around, because that is what we will be learning about in this week's blog.
The Eyes and the Autonomic Nervous System
Our nervous system is an amazing feat of evolution; it's complex, it's comprehensive, and we're still discovering new horizons in science relevant to its mosaic of connectors and connections. What we know from neurophysiology is that there are six extraocular muscles that move each eye: four rectus muscles (superior, inferior, medial, and lateral) and two oblique muscles (superior and inferior). These muscles allow our eyes to move in various directions, helping us gather visual information from our environment. Their function, although primarily visual, has a profound connection to the state of our nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into two parts: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Stressors, both real and perceived, activate the sympathetic system. One of the most rapid responses to stress is a change in our visual field—we often focus more narrowly on perceived threats; that is, we automatically and therefore consciously squint, sometimes slightly and sometimes extremely. Think about the last time you looked into the eyes of someone who was super anxious, very stressed, or awfully mad. By consciously shifting our visual field and gaze, or by relaxing and softening our gaze, we can influence our ANS and induce a more relaxed state.
Techniques Using Extraocular Muscles to Calm the Nervous System
Instead of focusing intently on a single point, allow your eyes to relax and take in the entire visual field. This technique, often used in meditation, is akin to looking at a panoramic view. Soft gazing can shift our nervous system from a state of high alert to one of calm. To do this, begin by focusing your gaze on a visual queue--whether near or far does not matter; then, begin to allow your peripheral vision to pick up things in your peripheral field of view. Slowly expand to your periphery as far as possible, without straining your eyes but instead allowing your eyes to comfortably widen and, simultaneously, your gaze to soften (the muscles around your eyes to relax).
Horizontal Eye Movements
Moving the eyes from side to side in a controlled manner engages the lateral and medial rectus muscles. This movement can stimulate bilateral brain activity, often used in therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to process traumatic memories and reduce anxiety. To do this relaxation exercise, you may pick two points, and slowly shift your gaze between them; not moving your head like you're at a tennis or ping-pong match, but moving only your eyes. Likewise, it's unnecessary to have focal points. You can use a wall, the floor, a vast field in front of you; it's not the focal points that matter but the movement itself. Just slowly move your eyes laterally on a horizontal plane from side to side. Think old-time hypnosis and pendulums, only you won't be told to cluck like a chicken or become the next Manchurian candidate.
Vertical Eye Movements
Looking up and down engages the superior and inferior rectus muscles. This simple action can aid in grounding oneself, especially if paired with deep breathing. The fundamentals of this exercise are just like horizontal eye movements, only, yes, you are correct: You move your eyes slowly up and down instead of side to side.
Circular Eye Movements
By moving the eyes in a circular motion, you engage all the extraocular muscles. This can help reduce eye strain and may aid in breaking cycles of ruminating thoughts. EMDR therapy has a very interesting "infinity" or "figure eight" movement that some therapists incorporate into their sessions or sets. The movement of the eyes following an infinity or figure eight pattern does exactly what is explained above: It engages all the eye muscles, but it also creates bilateral stimulation, similar to the horizontal eye movements explained above. Inasmuch, it's a very useful tool to have in your toolbox for use in downregulating your nervous system and reducing anxiety, depression, and rumination.
Other Techniques to Integrate With Eye Movements
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, professionals and coaches often talk about "breath work" or breathing exercises to help with calming anxiety and creating relaxation. It's true that deep, conscious breathing is known for its calming effects on the nervous system. This is due in large part to deep breathing's connection to our 10th cranial nerve, called the Vagus Nerve, which we will cover in a future blog post. For now, it's important to know that when you synchronize your breath with intentional eye movements—inhaling as your eyes look up and exhaling as they move down, for example—you create a holistic practice that combines the benefits of both breathwork and visual exercises.
Mindfulness and Visualization
Incorporate visualization techniques while utilizing extraocular muscle exercises. For instance, imagine you are standing by a calm lake, watching the gentle ripples. Let your eyes mimic the movement of the water. By anchoring your visual exercises with peaceful imagery, you amplify the calming effects.
And, finally: Practice Regularly
These exercises are not just for use when you begin to feel stressed, anxious, or like you're spiraling into a panic attack. Like any other form of relaxation technique, regular practice reaps the benefits. Incorporating these eye exercises into your daily routine—even for just a few minutes a day—can create significant changes in your stress levels and overall well-being, keeping you ahead of the curve of stress.
Caveats and Considerations
While using the extraocular muscles can be a tool for relaxation, it’s essential to approach the practice with care. If you have any eye conditions, consult with an optometrist before engaging in these exercises. Additionally, while these techniques can aid relaxation, they are not a substitute for professional medical or therapeutic care.
Our eyes, often thought of as mere windows to the outside world, have a profound connection to our internal state. By understanding and using the extraocular muscles to influence our nervous system, we can unlock new avenues to relaxation and well-being. In the nexus of vision and calm, there lies a powerful tool for modern living. Give these techniques a try and witness the profound effects firsthand.