PT on the Net Research

The Daily Habits That Are Unknowingly Increasing Your Stress

Life is stressful enough. Clients do not need additional stress from their daily visual habits. In this article, learn what visual habits increase sympathetic dominance and exercises that can reduce stress and elicit a parasympathetic response.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Distinguish the difference between foveal and peripheral vision.
  2. Understand the relationship between foveal vision and the sympathetic nervous system.
  3. Identify the benefits of training peripheral vision.
  4. Learn exercises that can reduce sympathetic dominance.

Vision, Stress, and the Nervous System

In the article, "Using Vision Drills to Assess the Parasympathetic Nervous System," we discussed how peripheral vision can be used to determine whether a client is in more of a sympathetic or parasympathetic state. When the body is stressed and perceives there is a threat, the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is activated. Unfortunately, this occurs whether the stress is an imminent car accident, a "restricted perceptual life style that negatively affects the individual’s ability to learn and/or move effectively in the environment" (Godnig, 2003), or a negative life event stress (N-LES) (Rogers & Landers, 2005).

All stressors are processed similarly and the body reacts by activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS restricts the visual field so that the person can clearly see the dangerous situation. This visual restriction is also known as perceptual narrowing or tunnel vision.

The opposite is also true. Relying too much on foveal vision can trigger a stress response.  Foveal vision is eyesight at the center of the visual field where perception and acuity are the highest. This perceptual narrowing is used during reading, while using the computer, cell phone and other electronic devices, watching television, and other activities that require focused visual attention.

Consider the amount of time most people devote to these activities each day. By predominantly using foveal vision throughout the day, clients are increasing the body’s sympathetic response to their already stressful lives.

Vision and Training

This should be a huge eye-opener for trainers. Even if your clients exercise daily, drink water, eat healthy, and get a decent amount of sleep, daily visual habits may be contributing to sympathetic dominance (Wilson, 2016). Reducing lifestyle stressors and engaging in healthy habits are not sufficient to improve well-being. Visual habits also must be changed in order to reduce the stress on the nervous system and encourage activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Trainers recommend different strengthening, mobility and stretching exercises to counteract the physical stress of sitting too much.

Vision exercises can help counteract stress on the visual and nervous systems from chronic perceptual narrowing.

Establish a Baseline

Assess the level of stress that perceptual narrowing is causing by determining how much time clients spend using their foveal and peripheral vision.

In determining how much time clients are spending relying on foveal vision includes time that they are:

In determining how much time clients are spending relying on more of their peripheral vision, include:

For most clients, it will be obvious how much time is devoted to foveal vision versus peripheral vision. Help them understand how this disparity may be increasing their stress levels and/or difficulty in recovering.

Develop a Training Plan

 The goal is to reduce time spent using foveal vision and increase the use of peripheral vision. Here are some ways to achieve that:

Peripheral Vision Exercises

Use one of the following exercise when reading or working on an electronic device for extended periods of time.

Expanded Awareness

  1. Gently gaze at a point in front of you that is slightly lower than eye level.
  2. Without moving your eyes away from that point, notice what you can see in your peripheral vision to the right, left, above and below that point.

Once you are comfortable noticing the environment around you, add in the below exercise, which includes movement.

Arm Circles or Infinity Symbols

  1. Gently gaze at a point in front of you that is slightly lower than eye level.
  2. Move your arms in one of the following patterns:
    • Extend your arms out to either side and make circles. Vary the size of the circles to incorporate the peripheral field at various heights.
    • Extend one arm straight out in front of you and trace an infinity symbol (∞) in the space across the front of your body. Start small and then make the symbols larger

  3. Without moving your eyes away from your original focal point, notice the movement of the arms with your peripheral vision.

Benefits from Peripheral Vision Training

As you do these exercises, you may notice some physiological changes in your body as you activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, including:

In addition to decreasing stress levels through activing the PNS, peripheral vision training also:

Start Small but Start NOW

These eye exercises are simple, easy and effective, but doing them every 20 minutes may be too daunting at first. Just like any new habit, start off small. Do the exercises a couple times a day. It is better than not doing them at all. As your clients notice how they feel less tension, are more focused, and have more energy after doing these exercises, they will gladly incorporate them into a regular routine.


Godnig, E.C. (2003). Tunnel vision: Its causes and treatment strategies. Journal of Behavioral Optometry, 14(4), 95-99.

Rogers, T. J., & Landers, D. M. (2005). Mediating effects of peripheral vision in the life event stress/athletic injury relationship. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 27(3), 271-288.

Wilson, L.D. (2016). Sympathetic Dominance.  Retrieved from:

Chu, C., Rosenfield, M., Portello, J.K., et al. (2011). A comparison of symptoms after viewing text on a computer screen and hard copy. Ophthalmic Physiology, 31(1),29-32.