Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ideal Eye Posture: Relaxing the Lower Eyelid and Strengthening the Upper Eyelid

I have become convinced that the way people hold their lower eyelid strongly affects their emotional wellbeing. The lower eyelid has the ability to remain tonically tense. Its muscles can remain flexed, maintaining a wincing posture throughout the day, without the person being aware. I used to spend my days continually wincing, but I was oblivious to it. Spend a few minutes in front of the mirror and watch your lower eyelid move. It will twitch involuntarily when you think negative thoughts. In fact, it acts as an anchor in the face that recruits the rest of the wincing facial posture. You can control it voluntarily of course, and I think it is beneficial to spend some time watching it and exercising control over it. Start in front of a mirror with your eyes as wide open as possible. Do this without raising or tensing your eyebrows. As you watch yourself in front of the mirror, you will notice that as your attention shifts away, the lower eyelid will become tense again due to the force of habit. It has developed a natural tendency to maintain tonic myogenic activity because lower brain centers are accustomed to keeping it active. These evolutionarily old brain centers do this in an effort to help protect your eyes, but in doing so, they are actually increasing your susceptibility to stress and anxiety.


Here is why I think it is bad to constantly flex the lower eyelids. The lower eyelid, more so than the upper one, has an ability to potentiate the blinking response. Animals do this unconsciously when they assume that the safety of their eyes (evolutionarily precious organs) may be in jeopardy. Remember, the blinking response is a defensive response meant to protect the eye from damage. An animal that has been attacked or traumatized becomes programmed to squint in order to maintain a defensive eyelid posture that will allow it to blink faster in response to a threatening stimulus. Moreover, squinting with the lower eyelid pulls up ocular muscles (the inferior tarsus and the lower orbicularis oculi) to pad and protect the eyeball. In fact, many points in the body (especially in the face and spine) hold on to the trauma in an effort to maintain a low-grade defensive posture in anticipation of threat. Lower eyelid clenching is associated with the startle response, which of course is involved in flinching during threat and wincing during pain. Allowing unconscious brain centers to maintain tension in the lower eyelid sends messages to other threat centers in the brain, communicating to them that the current environment is adverse and potentially threatening to the eyes. This is ironic of course because in today’s world, our eyes are rarely threatened. In the ancestral past, it was adaptive for anxiety and fear to potentiate squinting but today, work and relationship stress are practically never indicative of impending threat to the eyes. Lower eyelid tension is rarely necessary, and the only way to remedy it (besides perhaps injecting these muscles with botox) is to make a  conscious effort about eye posture, to relax the lower lid and to try to walk around with wide eyes.


Sadly, lower lid tension can become the natural, default state. In fact, many people sleep with their faces tight, their teeth clenched and their eyelids clamped together. What state are your eyes in when you wake up? What state are they in now? I cannot imagine that lower lid tension is conducive to restful, restorative sleep, and I think that it makes waking life more strained. PTSD sufferers and military personnel have a distinct, tense, tired look that is centered around the eyes. Pictures taken before and after warzone deployment really illustrate the difference. At the martial arts studios that I used to practice at, the instructors and most of the students were always squinting, often had one eye more affected than the other, and had purple rings, dark circles and bags under their eyes. This is because walking into a martial arts studio with eyes wide open sends a signal: “I am not afraid,” a signal that many people are too conscientious to allow themselves to make. On the other hand, people that are candidly carefree and cheerful are often wide-eyed. Many children have this look. I think that common phrases in the vernacular, like “sensitive eyes,” “gleam in the eye,” sparkling eyes,” “light in the eyes” or “twinkle in the eyes,” describe this look.

Widening your eyes will seem difficult at first, but try a few things. Widen your eyes as much as possible and then raise your eyebrows, which will allow you to widen your eyes even further. Subsequently, allow your eyebrows to relax while keeping your eyelids just as wide. This helps. Moreover, try pulling down on the skin just below your eyes, exposing the underside of both eyelids to the air. Open your eyes as wide as you can while doing this and it helps you to change to a wider setting. Another trick is to roll your eyes slowly in an upward arc, raising them as high as possible. Looking up in general helps you to have wider eyes.
You will probably notice that relaxing the lower lid looks unnatural at first. This is because your facial expressions and general countenance have not adapted to the look. This takes time. When you have bad posture in your shoulders, back, neck and torso, and try to make up for it by assuming better posture, people can tell. It looks fake, and exaggerated because your muscles do not look natural in holding the posture. A few weeks of concerted effort can fix this problem though. It is the same with the lower eyelids. When I first relaxed my lower eyelid it looked ridiculous. I looked like a anxious person that was trying too hard to look calm. At first, I looked like a sickly drug addict that was walking around with wide open eyes. Even people that didn’t know me could tell that it was unnatural. With time though, it becomes natural. In fact, the cheeks and the areas under the eyes begin to look more healthy. I think the solution is to start practicing the relaxation of the lower eyelid alone in the mirror. Then when it is comfortable try it alone around the house. Once it looks natural, do it outdoors or in public. Soon it will look genuine conversationally, and after some practice you should be able to do it while falling asleep. When you find yourself wide-eyed when public speaking, and when waking up in the morning, you know you have gotten the hang of it. The most difficult thing is to do it while smiling. Most people have a “crazed” or manic look in their eyes if they relax their lower lids while smiling. With a few weeks practice though, you should be able to do this too.

 Here is a relevant quote from a book that I read in 2nd grade. I never forgot Roald Dahl’s admonition:

 “I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it's impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren't feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I've also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It's sure to be a phony.”

― Roald Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World

I am trying to teach myself to "fake it" habitually, and in so doing, fake myself out into becoming a happier person.

Here is a picture of some talented comedians faking it for comic effect (Danny's not doing it).

Me wincing and smiling vs. me not wincing and smiling:

The first picture was taken in 2008 and I was so used to squinting that my eyes are barely open. This was how I smiled all the time back then. It looks very unhealthy and is the smile of an anxious, depressed and/or defensive person. It feels much better to have clear eyes.

The Eyebrow / Eyelid Axis

We all have suffer from exaggerated tension in our eyebrow and eyelids. I refer to these two structures together as an axis because they form a principle structure, about which the face functions. The optimal eyebrow/eyelid posture is to have very wide eyes and unraised eyebrows. This feels great and looks amazing. But trauma and social signaling causes us to squint our eyes and raise our eyebrows. These two things are actually linked. When you try to widen your eyes, your eyebrows raise. So basically you trade one form of tension for another. When you try to let your eyebrows relax, the eyes squint. However, you can work toward alleviating the tension here. One way to is massage and apply compressive pressure to the muscles in order to release them from tension. This is necessary to fix the problem completely. It is also important though to perform mirror work. You want to practice widening your eyes without raising your eyebrows in front of a mirror. Take a minute every day for a week to work on this. Once you have the coordination down you can work on it when you are not in front of a mirror. It is important so it should become a part of your natural daily routines, and part of your self-monitoring schemas.
Don’t Wince in Your Sleep

Pay careful attention to your eyelids at night. Do not sleep through every night with your eyelids squeezing together. This was very difficult for me at first because my upper lids were very weak. If your upper lids are not strong enough to close the eye on their own, they will flutter and fail, waiting for the lower lids to tense up, raise and meet them. Thus, in order to close my eyes I had to squint. Spend a few minutes trying to close your eyes without wincing and notice the feeling of the upper lids fluttering involuntarily. Every night before sleep I shut my eyes closed very tight, using only the upper lids. Doing this every night for five minutes worked, they slowly became stronger over the course of a few weeks. I believe that taping the lids closed can also help relax the lower lid. Also pin your eyelids closed with your index and middle fingers and try to open them while looking up, this strengthens the muscles responsible for the wide-eyed look.

Look Up More Often

I find that looking up while facing forward helps this process. To try this, stare up towards your eyebrows without actually raising your brows. I also think that looking upward is good for the brain and breaks down negative implicit and procedural memories. When you roll your eyes, you also look up and these two things - both the cultural gesture and the neural reprogramming technique that I am advocating – are related. We are often afraid to look up when we are encountering an equal or a superior. It can be a sign of disdain or disregard. This is why people roll their eyes when they feel that someone has demonstrated a form of inferiority. It is a nonverbal statement that is saying: “I am too good for that.” The fact that we rarely roll our eyes or look up in the presence of others communicates to subcortical systems in the brain that our environment might be intimidating and that we should not look up for fear of reprimand or reprisal. Looking up, while alone, and in social situations retunes different subconscious neurological systems The more you look up, the more you disintegrate this unconscious fear system, and the more you break the hold of the wincing facial posture. There are several other nonverbal gestures that do this including: 1) standing erect, 2) holding your chin or nose high, 3) yawning in the presence of others, 4) breathing slowly and deeply around others, 5) speaking slowly, 6) speaking in a low as opposed to a high voice, 7) refraining from raising your eyebrows during conversation. Each of these things can be threatening when combined with negative affect or negative statements. These things are all very empowering and calming to others though when combined with positive affect and positive statements.   

Massage Your Orbits

I recently began massaging the muscles around my eyes. Using a Brookstone vibrating massager on my face I realized that there were small, penny sized sore spots – one below each eye and one above each eye. At first, these were actually difficult to massage because they were very painful. These are the tense muscles responsible for my squinting during the day and my wincing during sleep.

The orbicularis oculi muscles are some of the tightest in the face and tension here makes us look old and tired. You should have four particularly sore spots around the eyes. One an inch below each eye from squinting and one an inch above each eye from raising your eyebrows. Massaging this area will help you to stop squinting. I bought a blue squash ball and worked on these for several weeks. The day after they feel especially sore but you can also feel the relief. Don’t skip a day just because the area is sore, work through the soreness. I would do circular motions putting between 3 and 10 pounds of pressure into my cheek bones. I had a small knot about an inch and a half below each eye and reliving myself of these was very freeing.
When a squash ball becomes too soft, slowly and carefully compress these with your knuckles or a baseball, it might take 6 months to work through them completely but I promise if you do it 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week, you will see significant weekly results. You will stop squinting so much and the bags under your eyes will disappear.
Most people have a crease that runs from the inside corner of the eye down diagonally toward the cheek. This crease is caused from perpetual squinting – tension in the lower portion of the orbicularis oculi muscle. People who squint more are more likely to have a more prominent crease here and more likely to have darker, discolored bags under the eyes. Compression can take this away completely.
Place the fingertips of your pointer fingers along the edge of your eye’s orbits, the bony ridge that encircles the eyes. If you place them along the lower ridge, just under the eye you should be able to feel painful strings of muscle. At first I thought that these were veins and I assumed that I should leave them alone. They are merely tense muscles and they will completely disappear if you compress them. Push down on them with your fingertips and squeeze them against the orbital bone. When they are gone your squint will disappear, and the skin under your eyes will become smooth and will lose its discoloration.
You also want to pay particular attention to the bony ridges of the corners of your eyes, otherwise known as your orbits. We hold a great deal of tension here, as if we were always on the verge of crying. Releasing this tension make you feel wide-eyed and happier. You can also place the section of the orbit associated with crows feet wrinkles between two of your second knuckles and press inward as you stroke up and down. It will feel painful at first but the pain here can be alleviated in as little as two weeks. Your crows feet will also diminish in size and depth as the muscle becomes healthy and circulation improves.

Spend Time in the Sun

Most people wince and squint heavily in direct sunlight and many people do this when they are merely out of doors. Spend some time in the daylight while trying to keep from squinting. Phototherapy is a treatment for depression and anxiety, and I believe that one of the main reasons it works is it teaches people to squint less when exposed to bright lights. I think phototherapy would be more effective if people tried to remain wide-eyed while exposed to the light source. I personally was a vampire before - I constantly squinted in the light. Now I can be out of doors with my eyes wide open.


  1. Excellent article. It explains a lot why I wince. The exercises makes a lot of sense and I will begin performing them daily.

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  2. Thank you for this. Keep them coming please.

  3. This is a fantastic article and it totally describes my problem. I am just having a lot of trouble being consistent. Any advice? New techniques for keeping that pesky lower eyelid down?

  4. So happy!!!! You speak my language, and like I said in a another comment, I have been thinking along these lines for a while, and you take it to the next level for me. MORE PLEASE

  5. Any chance you can include some photos, or better yet, a YouTube video to demonstrate these techniques? I'm worried I'm rubbing/massaging too hard and that i will cause darker lines by breaking the small blood vessels.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge. In my experience, I've been concerned with my eyes ever since 15 years of age when I began to wear eye concealer. My friends would comment on my eye puffiness which were likely from stress from parental separation and insecurities. Only after 14 years have I stopped wearing eye concealer every day which has allowed me to see my eyes raw. After trying your method, I am feeling the stretch in my eyelids not as a strain but as steps towards better eye flexibility. Maybe I could see it as eye yoga. I will plan a consistent eye warm up and eye work out and hope for a difference in time for summer!

  9. I am 2 years into a struggle with bells palsy. I'm experiencing synkinesis at this time. Can I safely work these compression exercises without doing any additional harm? Like what else could go wrong, right. Anyway, I have tried to do the exercises and have felt relief but of course I image that it would take a long time to get rid of the soreness and paralysis. Do you have any thoughts for me?

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