Could Stress Be Impairing Your Clients’ Vision?

“We see largely with the mind and only partly with the eyes.” William Bates, Better Eyesight without Glasses.1909,1977.

Vision training exercises used in Affect Regulation Therapy facilitate fast and effective relief of stress for our clients. But how does it work? Read on to find out more.

Vision takes place in the brain

The retina has a maximum sensitiveness point, that is called the fovea centralis or central pit. The center of the fovea is the seat of acutest vision. The acuteness of vision rapidly decreases away from this spot. The eye with normal vision sees one part of everything it looks at best and all other parts worse in proportion to their distance from the point of maximum vision. In abnormal conditions of the eye, functional or organic, this central function is lost.

“When sight is normal the sensitiveness of the fovea is normal. When sight is imperfect, the sensitiveness of the fovea is lowered.” William Bates, 1909,1977.

When there is tension, vision becomes imperfect

One of the causes of this loss of function in the centre of sight is mental strain, or stress. Perfect vision requires relaxation, memory and imagination. When tension exists, vision becomes imperfect. In turn imperfect vision causes memory to worsen and impairs the ability to imagine. This pathology illustrates that vision problems can have a psychological component.

What is the evidence?

William Bates, a physician and ophthalmologist, discovered that “when the mind is under strain, the eye usually goes more or less blind.” (William Bates, 1909, 1977). Bates conducted numerous experiments that tested the eyes of tens of thousands of animals and humans. He found that the retina is white when relaxed, pink under mild stress and dark brown under severe stress. He also found that 40% of children have diminished eyesight after only a few years of school due to the stress of learning.

To combat these effects, he developed vision therapy and implemented vision programs in schools in the USA. He used a tool called The Snellen Card, which tested distant vision of a familiar object. The therapy involved asking students to close their eyes and imagine a perfect full stop. His theory was, “central fixation of the eye means central fixation of the mind.” (William Bates, 1909,1977). In other words, good vision requires good mental function and vice versa. His vision therapy used deep relaxation, memory and visualization to correct vision impairments.

Bates’ vision program experienced wide success, decreasing the number of children with lowered eyesight needing glasses. But in spite of his widespread success, his programs were discontinued from the education curriculum. 

Has there been further research?

In his book on vision training, ‘The Suddenly Successful Student’, Skeffington, an optometrist, describes this view on vision and the mind: “Vision is the neurological balancing system, the master coordinator for the whole body mind system.”

Based on his findings in practice, Skeffington developed a new form of vision therapy. His techniques included breathing techniques, self-awareness, postural training and balance exercises. He found that during vision therapy his patients would undergo a transformation or transition period, with neurological and psychological features. During therapy the client typically would experience dizziness, nausea, headaches and depression. At completion of the therapy, client benefits included sound mental health, increased energy, creativity and good vision.

Skeffington’s work showed that vision therapy is also psychotherapy, and importantly, that vision therapy helps to release stress. Skeffington’s methods and results are valuable in explaining for example how a psychotherapy such as EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, might work..

Vision exercises are an aspect of this therapy and since 1989 more than 200 research papers have been published on the effectiveness. of EMDR as a treatment for anxiety and PTSD.

The body and mind feedback loop

Although Bates was an ophthalmologist, and Skeffington an optometrist, and

both were therefore concerned primarily with improving vision, they uncovered the mental and emotional benefits of vision therapy. They found that vision is impaired by stress, and that vision problems have a psychological component. Bates discovered that vision training lowers stress levels and that there is a feedback loop between vision, cognition, learning, mood, memory, imagination, social behaviour and metabolic processes. The eyes thus provide us with a useful biofeedback tool.

Bates found that health was impacted by vision training in a broader sense too. He found the sensory perception of sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell could all benefit from central fixation. He found that digestion, assimilation, elimination are improved by it; symptoms of functional and organic diseases can be relieved, and efficiency of mental skills are increased.

Final thoughts 

In Affect Regulation Therapy vision training exercises are used as part of the psychotherapy treatment program, not to improve vision, but rather as a fast and effective way to decrease stress levels.

The advantages of this approach is that there are many added side benefits for clients – in addition to better mental health, clients also commonly report improvement in social relationships and for example, their reading skills improve. Clearly there are advantages to including vision training as a therapy tool.

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