Trauma leads to chronic muscle tension as the body works to manage internal nervous system disruptions as well as external life disruptions. Our eyes are affected directly by muscle tension and indirectly by incomplete trauma responses.
Light enters the eye through the pupil and is focused by the lens onto the retina in the back of the eye. Muscles in and around the eye control where we look, whether we have depth perception, how much light enters the eye, and how clearly we see. Chronic muscle tension can affect all those functions.
Outer eye muscles
Six muscles around the outside of each eye move it up, down, side to side, and rotationally. (Two of the muscles are shown in the diagram.) An imbalance in these muscles can lead to strabismus (crossed eyes) where the eyes do not track together, which interrupts depth perception and can cause double vision. These muscles can also pull the eye out of shape, leading to blurred vision because incoming light is not focused accurately on the retina at the back of the eye.
Clear vision also depends on saccades, small fast involuntary eye movements that scan what we want to see. The retina has a small high-resolution area called the macula, containing an even smaller highest-resolution area called the fovea. Saccades allow the fovea to take in more of what we look at, building up a sharp image. We can support sharp vision by noticing details, allowing our eyes to move from one detail to the next.
Inner eye muscles
Small muscles inside the eye change the shape of the lens to focus on near objects. This is known as accommodation. Ongoing stress and tension make accommodation more difficult. We can let those muscles rest by looking into the distance as a break from close work such as looking at a computer.
The iris contains muscles that expand and contract the pupil depending on the amount of light available. We can keep these muscles active through their full range by spending time in bright sunlight as well as walking around in a (safe) dark environment.
Neck and head
Our neck muscles are involved as well. Our eyes want our head to move smoothly to direct our gaze, and neck tension gets in the way. Watch a dog out on a walk sometime. The head swings easily and eagerly in the direction of each object that catches the dog’s attention. We can practice allowing our head to follow our gaze as our eyes wander toward what interests them.
Full field of vision
In Emergency Mode during or after trauma, our field of vision narrows to take in only what is right in front of us. Everything else can wait until the emergency is over. When we do regain a sense of safety, we might suddenly notice decorations or other details in our environment that have been there all along.
You can invite your field of vision to broaden by waving your hands at the periphery of your vision while continuing to look forward. You can also consciously circle through your full field of vision. Without moving your head, look up, around to the left, down, around to the right, and back up. Circle the other way too.
Trauma can also affect our desire to see clearly. We might have been punished for seeing abuse, or experienced gaslighting: “This isn’t happening. You don’t see it.” Our eyes might blur, cross, or reflexively avoid the direction that brought danger.
Repair the boundary bubble
Someone injured from the upper left might experience reinjury because they do not see obstacles in that area. Our sense of a safe boundary bubble around us feels torn or has a hole. We can repair the boundary bubble by checking which directions feel safe, and which directions feel more dangerous or threatening. We can gently attend to the border between a safe area and a dangerous area to help the boundary bubble heal there.
Orient to danger
Our eyes and neck might be affected because of an incomplete orienting response. The nervous system wants enough time to sense danger, orient toward it by turning the head and focusing the senses, and then respond. When the traumatic event happens too fast, or during sleep, the incomplete orienting response can leave lingering tension.
Somatic Experiencing includes techniques for releasing incomplete responses by attending to bodily responses while gradually and gently revisiting the traumatic event. In a slowed-down version of the event, we can invite the neck, head, and eyes to move as they wish to turn toward the source of danger. Release responses might include twitches, warmth, deep breaths, belly sounds, or tears.
Rest your eyes
We can allow our eyes to rest and invite them to release tension by palming: briefly rubbing the hands together, and then resting the palms over the eyes, touching the bony sockets, but not the eyes themselves. Allow the eyes to rest into darkness.
NOTE: Palming is not recommended for people diagnosed with glaucoma because it can raise the intra-ocular pressure.
Palm for as long as it feels good, anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes. In his book Vision for Life, Meir Schneider recommends several shorter sessions throughout the day rather than one longer session. Either way can be beneficial. Palming can be restful after driving, computer use, or any other visually intensive activity.
If palming is uncomfortable, or in addition to palming, you can invite your eyes to fall back into your skull. We unconsciously tense our muscles to look out at the world, and forget to relax again. You might feel your face, jaw, and even shoulders let go. You can give gentle pressure to the bony sockets around the eyes to help you sense into that area.
Clarity in the present
Many of these tips can be done while walking, waiting in line, or any time we have a few moments in our day. As we look into the distance, notice details, move our eyes through their full range of motion, or let them sink back in their sockets, we connect with our present sensory experience. Practicing rest and kindness toward our eyes gradually eases habits of chronic tension. As we look at the world with more relaxation and clarity, we see more of the beauty and safety available to us.
- Eye diagram by Bruce Blaus. “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014“. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia human eye page.
- The book Vision for Life by Meir Schneider contains his story of healing from legal blindness with the Bates Method, and his carefully described exercises to improve vision.
- The book Fixing My Gaze by neuroscientist Susan R. Barry describes her recovery of stereoscopic (3D) vision after a lifetime of crossed eyes. It includes information about the neurology of vision, specifics about vision therapy, and the far reaching effects of seeing depth.
- WorkRave is a free program for Windows and Linux that encourages you to take breaks from computer work at customizable intervals. I highly recommend it as a reminder to pause, look into the distance, and stretch. Here are some alternatives for Mac.