Stress affects all of us to some degree. Whether it’s pressure at work, personal struggles, or the demands of our interconnected society – stress tends to trail behind us like our shadows during sunset. While researchers have documented its mental and emotional toll, one thing often overlooked is how stress affects vision.
The Link Between Stress and Eye Health
Did you know the human body has built-in mechanisms to manage stress? For instance, when a stressful situation arises, the body activates its “fight or flight” response, shifting energy resources toward escaping danger or defending against a threat. However, despite these natural mechanisms, 74% of people struggle to cope with overwhelming stressors from daily life.
Continuous exposure to pervasive and intense stressors impairs health by causing high blood pressure, sleep disorders, weight gain, memory problems, and so much more. Making matters worse, researchers found that elevated stress levels can lead to loss of vision. This eye-opening conclusion is from a review of collective clinical trials published in the European Association for Predictive, Preventive, and Personalized Medicine Journal in 2018.
How Stress Affects the Eyes
When the body’s stress response activates, it can cause the following visual disturbances:
- Blurry vision: Stress can cause the muscles in and around your eyes to tense up, making it difficult for the lens to focus and resulting in distorted, double, or blurry vision.
- Eye strain: While commonly due to prolonged intensive use of the eyes, such as looking at your computer screen for hours on end, stress can also cause eye strain.
- Light sensitivity: Stress can heighten your eyes’ sensitivity to light. In severe cases, you may experience eye pain.
- Eye floaters: Along with eye strain and light sensitivity, stress can also cause tiny spots to appear across your vision.
- Eye twitching: Stress can trigger involuntary muscle contractions, including the muscles responsible for controlling eye movement. Your eyes may twitch as a result – a condition known as myokymia.
- Tunnel vision: In some cases, prolonged stress can affect your peripheral vision. Tunnel vision restricts what your eyes can focus on to what’s straight in front of you.
Dimmed vision, dry and irritated eyes, light flashes, and reduced blinking can also accompany the above vision disturbances.
Can Stress Cause Vision Loss?
Stress and vision loss have a complex relationship. Although stress itself may not directly cause loss of vision function, it can worsen vision problems and lead to impairment.
In particular, the following types of mental stress can aggravate vision problems:
- Anxiety: If you are severely or constantly stressed and anxious, high adrenaline levels in your body can cause pressure on the eyes, resulting in blurry vision.
- Depression: A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that vision function loss is significantly associated with depression.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports these findings, noting that 1 in 4 adults with vision loss struggle with anxiety, depression, or loneliness.
Mental stress can exacerbate vision problems and cause vision loss by raising cortisol levels, consequently affecting the brain and eyes. Elevated cortisol levels also cause imbalances in the sympathetic nervous system, spurring diseases of the visual system like glaucoma and optic neuropathy.
Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
Fortunately, in most cases, managing mental stress also relieves the symptoms of stress-related vision problems. But before addressing mental stress, we need to identify its symptoms.
You may have general anxiety if you experience these symptoms daily or frequently:
- Excessive worrying that seems impossible to control
- Difficulty focusing
- Trouble sleeping, even if you barely slept the night before
- Constantly feeling restless or on edge
- Being quick to anger or irritate, even for minor reasons
As for the common symptoms of depression, they include:
- A lingering feeling of sadness, helplessness, or worthlessness
- Having no interest in any hobbies or activities
- Fatigue or lack of energy, even with enough rest and sleep
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Facing intrusive thoughts of self-harm
How to Manage Mental Stress and Prevent Vision Loss
Stress can affect your health in too many ways, including impairing your vision. Here are some tips to help you manage mental stress and preserve your vision:
- Get enough sleep: Sleep is a non-negotiable luxury we must invest in. Aim for 7 hours of quality sleep to help your mind and body recover from daily stressors. Lack of sleep can heighten stress levels and make it more difficult for you to concentrate during the day. What’s worse, it can lead to eye strain, blurred vision, and headaches.
- Drink water: Dehydration can dry out the eyes’ lining and cause discomfort. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends drinking 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of water daily for adult men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women to stay hydrated.
- Give your eyes a break from screens: Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for a minimum of 20 seconds to prevent eye strain.
- Manage time and prioritize tasks: Create a schedule, set priorities, and break tasks into doable chunks to minimize the pressure of looming deadlines.
- Stay connected: Maintain social connections with loved ones. Talking about your stressors or just chatting with a trusted person can provide relief, while social isolation can cause your mental state and eye health to decline.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption: Both beverages contribute to anxiety and sleep disturbances, potentially intensifying stress and its effects on your vision.
- Stay informed but set boundaries: Excessive exposure to distressing information can aggravate stress. Refer to this guide from the American Psychological Association to set limits on your news consumption or social media exposure.
- Practice gratitude: Research demonstrates that a single act of thoughtful gratitude increases happiness by 10% and reduces depressive symptoms by 35%. So go and reflect on the things you’re thankful for and show gratitude to shift your focus away from stressors.
Managing mental stress is an ongoing process, and what works best for you may vary. Prioritize self-care and safeguard your vision by trying the above tips. More importantly, seek professional guidance whenever needed to protect your mental health and vision.
About Arizona Retinal Specialists in Sun City, AZ
We are an ophthalmology practice specializing in comprehensive retinal examinations, consultations, and treatments. Dr. Gholam Peyman and Dr. Mandi Conway – our renowned eye care providers with extensive training and decades of experience as retina and vitreous specialists – provides unrivaled eye health management for residents and sightseers in Phoenix, Arizona. Call us at 623-474-3937 for more information or to schedule a comprehensive eye exam.