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The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements: Tools for Trauma Recovery
It is often said that the eyes are a window to your soul. Indeed, your eyes provide great insight into how you are feeling. When we are stressed we tend to furrow our brows, contracting the muscles around our eyes and making them appear smaller. When we are tired our eyelids grow heavy. When we feel connected and excited to see someone our eyebrows lift and our eyes appear brighter and larger.
While you might try to hide your true emotions by controlling the muscles of your face, you really can’t stop your eyes from revealing how you really feel. This is because eye movements are closely tied to your autonomic nervous system.
When you are on alert, your pupils dilate helping you scan your environment. This is one reason why individuals who have experienced traumatic events at night are often able to describe the scene as if it was in broad daylight. And when you feel safe, your eyes tend to sparkle and express warmth as a signal that you are engaging your social nervous system. This is because four of your cranial nerves are directly associated with vision or eye movements and your vagus nerve connects your eyes to your heart.
Eye movements have been integrated into many healing practices such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy and Yoga.
Eye Movements and the Neurochemistry of Courage
Our eyes naturally move from side to side as we walk through the world; it is a way of observing our environment. From an evolutionary perspective, this action is necessary for survival, because it allows us to scan the world for food and potential predators. This action evokes the neurochemistry of courage. Pairing physical and lateral eye movements suppresses the amygdala’s role in initiating a fear response. It simultaneously signals the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps increase a felt sense of pleasure and reward.
Adding eye movements while confronting a difficult memory helps to reduce the fear response in the body and mind and helps to distance you from the negative emotions related to historical traumatic events. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy engages bilateral eye movements to facilitate communications across left and right hemispheres in a way that mimics REM sleep.
Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered the power of eye movements for trauma recovery purely by chance during a walk in the park when she noticed that her eyes were moving back and forth. She was talking with a friend about something difficult and the disturbance went away. Over time she developed EMDR Therapy as a trauma treatment model that helps clients process traumatic life experiences and related symptoms.
Eye Yoga and the Vagus Nerve
Many yogic practices facilitate integration between the left and right hemispheres of the brain through movements that engage the left and right sides of the body. For example, eye yoga typically involves lowering and lifting your gaze from the tip of your nose to the center of your forehead, moving your eyes back and forth from left to right, and circling your eyes in both directions.
Yoga also incorporates the use of a single point for your gaze, or Drishti, to help settle your mind. It is also recommended that you spend some time each day allowing your eyes to rest in total darkness by placing a light eye pillow or resting your palms gently over your eyes. This allows your eyes to recover from strain.
The vagus nerve and eye movements are interconnected. Oculocardiac convergence visual therapy helps reset the vagal tone and reduce anxiety by shifting the focal point of the eyes from close in to far off in the distance.
If you like, explore stretching and engaging the eye muscles, which can help these muscles relax.
Start by holding a pencil or small object about four to six inches in front of your face.
Allow your eyes to focus on this object for about 20 seconds, and then shift your focus to look off in the distance for about 20 seconds.
Continue back and forth for about four cycles, and then softly relax your eyes.
The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements
Your vagus nerve passes through your belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. Therefore, practices that stimulate or relax these areas of the body can influence the tone of your vagus nerve through the mind-body feedback loop.
Within the medical field, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), also referred to as neuromodulation, involves surgically implanting a bioelectronic device or using a non-surgical transcutaneous (through the skin) device, which sends a stimulating yet undetectable electrical current to the vagus nerve. You can also naturally stimulate your vagus nerve to relieve keyed-up or shut-down nervous system states.
You can naturally stimulate your vagus with techniques such as altering the rhythm of your breath, practicing mindful body awareness, and exploring gentle yoga postures to create greater balance in your body and mind.
Eye movements are particularly powerful because they have a direct connection to the suboccipital muscles that sit at the base of your skull. As you move your eyes you create subtle movements that help to release tight muscles in your neck which in turn can reduce tension around the first and second cervical vertebrae. In his book, Accessing The Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Stanley Rosenberg combines eye movements with gentle movements that release your neck muscles. These help to increase blood flow to your vertebral artery, which supplies blood to the brainstem and vagus nerve.
Eye Movement, Courage, and the Vagus Nerve
This video explains more about the vagus nerve and eye movements and invites you to try an exercise for your own self-care:
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, a trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested relational psychotherapy.