Visual stress is something most people can relate to. We’re so busy looking at our computers, tablets, and smartphones every day that we overtax our eyes to the point where simply reading can be difficult. When we were hunters, gatherers, and farmers, we used our long-distance vision more. Today, though, we mostly use our eyes for close-up tasks, both at work and at home.
Dr. Monica Spokas is a developmental optometrist and clinical director of the Clarendon Visual Development Center. She says that, “Every day we spend 6-8 hours taxing our near vision. Not surprisingly, the number of adults experiencing symptoms of a vision problem because of all that close work is on the rise.” She also explains that as we stress our visual system with long periods of close work, our vision becomes inefficient, and this can cause fatigue to the point that we may fall asleep while reading or have difficulty concentrating on the task at hand.
Spokas says that many people chalk up their symptoms to a variety of other problems, but they usually are a result of stress and can be treated. Some of the symptoms include:
- Eyes that burn, water, or tire easily
- Double vision or vision that seems to go in and out of focus
- Symptoms of ADD, such as daydreaming or inability to concentrate
- Headaches, especially in the front of the head and the temples
- Feeling dizzy or nauseous after reading or other close work
Practicing good “visual hygiene” can reduce the stress on our eyes and increase our performance at work and at school. Key features of that hygiene include:
- Use the “Harmon Distance” for close-up work. This distance, which is the optimum distance for reading or writing on a desk, is approximately 16 inches. To give yourself an idea of what that distance is, curl your fist under your chin; the Harmon Distance is about the space between your knuckle and your elbow. Position your computer screen so it is 20-24 inches from your eyes.
- Look at your device straight on. Peering over at it from the side or down from a high angle stresses the eyes. Looking slightly downward at the screen, though, can help with “convergence,” the ability of our eyes to work together, so you may want to elevate your chair just slightly.
- Look up and take breaks. Just like the rest of your body, your eyes need rest. Spokas suggests the 20-20-20 rule: look up from your work every 20 minutes and peer at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
- Use appropriate lighting. When doing close work, daylight is usually the best type of light. Make sure, though, that it is not bouncing off your computer screen and producing glare – that will make you squint and cause undue stress. If daylight is not an option, go for a combination of incandescent and fluorescent lights. Just fluorescent lighting may be too harsh, and some people are bothered by the glare and the buzzing sound the lights make, especially those who suffer from migraines.
When you are working or reading, you are generally in control of your environment. Make sure you’re taking all the necessary steps to reduce your visual stress, which will maximize your productivity.