Stressed? Learn to engage your Vision and Breath

What is stress’s the relationship has to do with vision?

Why is the visual field so connected to this brain state?

How are breathing and the brain connected?

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By Carmen


Find a point straight in front of you and focus on it. Now gradually become aware of what’s around it…and let your vision spread out in front of you to the corners of the room as your eyes continue to look at that point. You become more and more aware of the periphery of your vision.

If you stretch out a hand to one side of you, you might find the point on the edge of your vision where you only see that hand when you waggle the fingers.

Let your awareness also spread behind you…I’m not suggesting that you can literally see what’s behind you, but let your senses of hearing, touch, smell, and spatial awareness spread out to the periphery as well…and notice what changes in your physical state… and in your attention…

Typically, in Western society, we use what’s known as ‘foveal’ vision, where we concentrate on one point in front of us and notice all the details about that one point – watching TV, looking at a computer screen, reading, talking to someone – and ignore everything around it.

Another kind of vision, ‘peripheral’ vision, takes in the whole panorama of what’s happening in front of us and around us. It uses different light receptors in the retina and other neural pathways in the brain.


As you experienced your peripheral vision, you might have noticed specific physiological changes – perhaps a shift in your breathing from higher to lower in the chest, a relaxation of face and jaw muscles, and maybe later your hands became warm. If you normally have an internal dialogue going on, you might have noticed it was quieter than usual or stopped altogether.

It seems that foveal vision is linked to the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the ‘involuntary’ or autonomic nervous system associated with activity, adrenalin, and stress). In contrast, peripheral vision is linked to parasympathetic arousal (the part of the nervous system associated with relaxation, calmness, and healing). In fact, to the extent that you are genuinely in the peripheral vision state, you can block anxiety or stress; the two conditions are physiologically incompatible.

In hunter-gatherer cultures, peripheral vision when hunting allows you to catch movements of prey without having to move your head and give your position away; it also dispels fear.

In martial arts, peripheral vision allows you to be aware of any movement an opponent makes with his hands, for example, while keeping the rest of him in view. You can see how useful that would be if more than one person was coming at you at once.


Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who studies the visual system, sees matters a bit differently.

Stress, he says, is not just about the content of what we are reading or the images we are seeing.

It is about how our eyes and breathing change in response to the world and the cascades of events that follow.

And both of these bodily processes also offer us comfortable and accessible releases from stress.

Huberman’s assertions are based on both established and emerging science. He has spent the past 20 years unraveling the inner workings of the visual system.

What is stress’s relationship to vision?

When you see something exciting or stressful—a news headline, a fraudulent credit card charge—heart rate increases; breathing increases. One of the most powerful changes is with vision. The pupils dilate, and there’s a change in the position of the lens in the eye. Your visual system goes into the equivalent of portrait mode on a smartphone. Your field of vision narrows. You see one thing in sharper relief, and everything else becomes blurry. Your eyeballs rotate just slightly toward your nose, which sets your depth of field and focus on a single location. This is a primitive and ancient mechanism by which stress controls the visual field.

How does this visual mode affect the body?

This focal vision activates the sympathetic nervous system. All the neurons from your neck to the top of your pelvis get activated at once and deploy a bunch of transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated and want to move.

Why is the visual field so connected to this brain state?

Something that most people don’t appreciate is that the eyes are actually two pieces of brain. They are not connected to the brain; they are brain. During development, the eyes are part of the embryonic forebrain. Your eyes get extruded from the skull during the first trimester, and then they reconnect to the rest of the brain. So they’re part of the central nervous system.

Having the eyes outside the skull orients the organism to the time of day. But it also means that you’ve got two pieces of brain that can register events in the environment at a distance in order to adjust the overall state of alertness in the rest of the brain and body. It would be terrible if we had to wait until things were in contact with us before we could prepare to react to them.

Is there a visual mode associated with calmness that can change our stress levels?

Yes: panoramic vision, or optic flow. When [you] look at a horizon or at a broad vista, you don’t look at one thing for very long. If you keep your head still, you can dilate your gaze so you can see far into the periphery—above, below and to the sides of you. That mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal.

One can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.


Sighing Is Actually a Life-Saving Reflex

The way we breathe impacts our states of stress very strongly.

Data show that during sleep and claustrophobic states, people and animals generate what are called “physiological sighs,” double inhales followed by exhales.

Children also do this when they are sobbing. A physiological sigh, two or three times, is the fastest way that we are aware of to bring the level of autonomic arousal back down to baseline.

Those spontaneously sighs (and all the other ones), it’s thought, may be helping to keep our half-billion or so alveoli – the tiny sacs through which our lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere that surrounds us – pumped up and operating efficiently.

How are breathing and the brain connected?

The relationship is anchored through the diaphragm, the only organ in the body that is skeletal muscle designed for voluntary movement. You can immediately take control of the diaphragm. So breathing represents a bridge between the conscious and unconscious control of the body.

When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, and the heart gets a little bigger because it has more space. Blood flows a little more slowly through the heart under that condition. So the heart then signals to the brain, and the brain says, “Oh, we’d better speed up the heart.” So if you want to increase your heart rate, you inhale more than you exhale. The opposite is also true. Every time you exhale, you’re slowing down the heart rate.

Our lungs consist of tons of tiny little sacs of air, millions of sacs of air. As we get stressed, these little sacs collapse. They deflate like a balloon.

Physiological sighs cause the sacs to reinflate. Carbon dioxide is the trigger for breathing: We don’t breathe because we need oxygen. We breathe because carbon dioxide levels get too high. Physiological sighs offload the maximum amount of carbon dioxide.

Breath and your brain. Do you remember the smell of your Grandmother’s perfume?  I certainly do.  And if I ever encounter that smell in the course of my daily life (walking through a department store or encountering a woman wearing ‘Chloe’) I immediately have an almost physical feeling of being loved, comforted and safe.  It brings up vivid images in my mind of the beauty of Montana and my grandparent’s home there.  Why is this?  Smell (which of course requires inhalation through the nose) is the sense that is most strongly connected to the long-term memory areas of the brain. And memory, of course, is the image that you have made of past events, and evokes sight, sound, smell and yes, feelings. 

Breath and your nervous system.  Breathing in different areas of the torso creates different stimulation to the nervous system and brain.

Breathing into the chest stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of the autonomic nervous system that supplies involuntary muscles and glands.  It stimulates the ductless glands and the circulatory system but inhibits the digestive system.

Breathing into the chest also switches on the left hemisphere of the brain, our logical, rational, language and number oriented thinking brain.  This side of the brain is responsible for muscle tension (or contraction) and detailed close vision. Hyperopes tend to spend too much time with the right brain and could find it helpful to make sure that they are doing balanced full torso breathing.

Breathing into the abdomen (lower belly) stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.  This is the part of the system that calms things down after the sympathetic part has hyped them up.  The parasympathetic nervous systems brings the heart rate down and the pupil to normal after stress has caused one to start pumping hard and the other to dilate.  It also stimulates the muscles of the digestive tract, so we do our best digestion when we are relaxed and breathing deeply. 

Those who assert that ‘eating when in stressful circumstances or when thinking stressful thoughts interferes with digestion’ may have more behind them then just ‘wishful thinking’!

Breathing deep in the belly also stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, our relaxing, imaging and movement brain, which is responsible for clear distant vision. 

Myopes and presbyopes both need to relax and switch on the right brain, so why not start by breathing deeply? 

So with vision and breathing, you are looking at physiological processes that are automatic but that we can also control.

If I make you stressed, you’ll perspire. But you wouldn’t say, “I’m going to make myself sweat, and therefore I’ll be stressed.” You can’t control your heart rate directly. You can’t control your adrenals with your mind. But you can control your diaphragm, which means you control your breathing, which means you control your heart rate, which means you control your alertness. You can control your vision, which thereby controls your level of alertness, your level of stress and your level of calmness.

Vision and breathing are essential as levers or entry points to autonomic arousal because they are available for conscious control at any point.


If you are in a peripheral vision state, it’s almost impossible to feel anxiety or stress.

So rather than moving from one foveal vision task to the next, do this little experiment over the following days.


Any time you find yourself reading from your phone (or if you prefer using the computer) :

  • Recognize that whenever you are reading from your phone, you are using foveal vision. (and that’s OK as long as your aware).

  • Once you have finished using the phone, take a big deep breath then….

  • Keep focusing on the screen but allow your eyes to soften and relax.  After a short period, you will notice your field of vision will start to spread.

  • Be aware of the colors, shades, and shapes above and below left and right.  Not looking directly at them but just having a gentle awareness.

  • Do this for as long as you fancy while noticing how you feel in body and mind.

  • Repeat each time you read from your phone (or every hour if stuck in front of a computer or book). Thank you, Johng Coaching

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