Tunnel vision and stress: why looking straight ahead can raise your stress levels

 Tunnel Vision

Noun, medical : a condition in which you can see things that are straight ahead of you but not to the side

: a tendency to think only about one thing and to ignore everything else

Sports coaches know all about tunnel vision.  They know that, to improve performance, athletes need to develop wider, peripheral vision. The cells of the retina that are used during peripheral vision are particularly sensitive to movement and shape. Training athletes to be more aware of what is happening on the edge of their field of vision leads to improved reaction times.

All very useful in sport.

But why do you need to know this?

You use tunnel vision most of the time. Also called foveal vision, it’s when we look directly ahead, focussing on something fairly near. It’s a sharp focus on detail – the type you need when threading a needle, for example.  You also use it when working on a PC.

Focussing too long in this way leads to muscle tension, particularly around the eyes.

Tunnel vision can make you feel intellectually drained as well as stressed.

It seems that there is a relationship between stress and tunnel vision.  Research shows that athletes under stress experience significant reductions in peripheral vision.  Under stress, people become fixated on detail, losing sight of the bigger picture – really, as well as metaphorically.

Our ancestors relied a lot on peripheral vision. Out hunting, they needed to be aware of possible threats in the wider environment. Today, the way we live and work means that we have largely lost our appreciation of this way of seeing things. We are taught from an early age at school not to daydream and to concentrate on the work in front of us.

Using your peripheral vision leads to a relaxed alertness.  

Try it for yourself.

The next time you are feeling tired or stressed, sit back in your chair. Keeping your eyes looking ahead, soften your gaze. Then widen your field of vision as far as you can to either side.  Maintain for a minute or so and take slower, deeper breaths.

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