Connecting in Times of Crisis: Eye Contact

Dr. Martha G. Welch discusses the importance of eye-contact in connecting with one another and reducing stress.

Remember bumping into an old friend on the street? Your eyes meet, you break into a wide smile, and the chaos of your day falls away. These incidental connections used to be built into our lifestyles, from catching up at the office water cooler to sharing a smile with a stranger in the elevator. More social interaction and changes of scene provide more novel opportunities for eye contact.

But after physically distancing for months, it’s easy to fall into patterns of disconnect. In this world of social separation, we live in parallel with our loved ones, often looking at devices more than at them. Even those who are out in the world (such as essential workers) may be having trouble making eye contact, because we’ve been avoiding getting close to people or directly facing them for fear of spreading the virus. And without practice, eye contact becomes uncomfortable.

If making eye contact feels difficult, it’s a sign we need to connect.

At the Nurture Science Program, we study what happens when distressing events separate us from the people we care about. Our research has shown that when we aren’t connected with others, our behavior changes and our brains can’t function well. In this blog series, we’re sharing our evidence-based seven connecting activities, which help us foster emotional connection. Today we focus on eye contact.

Emotional Connection Eye Contact circle graphic

Eye contact can establish connection, but it can also be a by-product of connection. When two people are emotionally connected, they love to look into each other’s eyes. In the NICU, we have observed that when a mother expresses deep emotions to her baby, the baby reciprocates by making eye contact, often for the first time.

Eye contact is so vital to well-being, that we’re programmed to do it from birth: the distance a newborn can see (8-12 inches) is the same distance from a mother’s breast to her eyes. When a mother disengages from her phone and sustains eye contact with her feeding baby, the two teach each other the intimate language of eye contact, and the baby makes more effort to communicate.

This lesson has deep body implications for infants and adults alike. Our eyes have oxytocin receptors in them (think “love at first sight”). And oxytocin, the hormone of nurturing and connection, has lifelong health benefits, like lowering levels of stress, pain, and inflammation, and regulating our heartbeats and breathing.

Today’s tip: Practicing eye contact

  • Make time to sit with someone you care about. Breathe deeply, relax your bodies, and look into each other’s eyes.
  • Notice that when you feel like running away from your feelings, you might break eye contact. With practice, you’ll be able to sustain eye contact or re-engage quickly.
  • If someone has difficulty with eye contact, be patient: making eye contact feels vulnerable when you’re in a fight-flight-freeze reaction. Use your eyes to show that the other person is safe and that you are open and listening, allowing them to meet your gaze in their own time.
  • It’s ok to look away while you gather your thoughts or tap into your feelings, just be sure to look back.
  • If you are vision impaired or blind, orient your eyes towards the other person as much as possible. Picture them in your mind’s eye. You may even want to touch their face, tracing their eyelids and eyebrows with your fingertips.
  • If you have children, try making it a game at first! Play peek-a-boo, have a staring contest, or have them guess what you’re feeling based on what they see in your face.
  • It is impossible to make simultaneous eye contact over video chat. But position the other person’s video image so that their eyes are as close to your camera as possible. This lets you switch back and forth between their face and the camera without appearing to break gaze.
  • You can start a video call by taking 5 second turns looking straight into the camera, so that you can see each other’s eyes. You’ll understand why it’s so important when the other person does it for you: you’ll feel so much more connected.
  • Practice making eye contact whenever you can, even briefly, no matter what activity you’re doing.
  • Find daily rituals for sustained eye contact: maybe on waking, at bedtime, and at mealtime.
  • Notice how many incidental opportunities for eye contact pop up when you look for them: asking each other questions, offering help with something, or sharing a joke.

The eyes are the windows to the soul. Through them, we can’t help but share our innermost feelings with each other. Incorporating more eye contact into your emotional expression will have profound effects on your wellbeing, and your ability to engage in meaningful emotional exchange with others. Connecting is a step towards building a world of empathy, cooperation, and reciprocity. Open your windows.

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA

Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program


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