Working with eye movements

4 May 2016 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

Eye movements not only give hints about the client's mental processes - they can also affect them.

Studies have shown that there are typical patterns of eye movements that often correspond to types of thoughts and feelings

typical eye patterns

But well as eye movements indicating what is going on for the client, the reverse can hold - making those eye movements can more easily induce the counterpart feelings or thoughts.

This can be used, for example, when teaching spelling, where the words the person is learning are held up in the "visual" area, to encourage those who have previously spelled by remembering sounds (or worse remembering the "feel" of a word) can learn to utilise more their visual memory.

In a therapeutic setting, if you are working with a depressed client, getting them to look upwards rather than down (inviting them to look at you, or at something in the room, for example), can help them take their focus away from difficult feelings.

Conversely, for clients who are having difficulty getting in touch with feelings and tend to rationalise, it can help to ask them to keep talking but to look (without lowering their head) at something low down, and in the area that you've identified as the one where they look when getting in touch with feeling (left or right according to their particular eye patterns), for example, at your hand.

In general, if you pay attention to eye movements while the client is talking, and notice that there is a particular area that they avoid, or if there are typical sequences of movements, then it can help the client to shift from their stuckness by breaking those patterns.

A simple way to do this is to get them to focus on something, such as your finger, and then to follow it with their eyes (not their head) while continuing to talk. Moving your finger around randomly (and particularly to the places they tend to avoid looking) can result in clients reporting that their feelings or attitude to their problem altering in the here-and-now.

Note though, that they may not always report a change for the better (as you might expect if they are able to see the problem from a new perspective) but also that the problem now feels worse (for example, if they were overlooking the true import of something that they were previously trivialising).

While you are listening to the client, you may notice a typical pattern, when they talk about a difficult experience, of the eye repeatedly flitting, momentarily, to a specific position, and immediately moving away again. One theory is that this specific eye-position corresponds to recalling a particular memory, one the client copes with by trying to keep it away from conscious awareness.

In this case you can try asking the client to focus their eye (without moving their head) on that spot - for example by putting your hand there - as they continue to talk about the experience. This can lead to a dramatic outpouring of emotion at times, so it can be worth trying.

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