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How stress can affect your vision

Woman with vision problems due to stress

Your blurry vision, eye twitching, headaches and watery or dry eyes may be caused by stress.

Other stress-inducing vision issues include dizziness, eye strain, sensitivity to light, eye floaters and eye spasms.

Stress is the body’s natural response to any demand for change that interferes with its normal equilibrium. Whether the response is physical, mental, emotional or visual, stress affects all of us to one degree or another.

Stress can cause anxiety, depression, elevated blood pressure, digestive issues, migraines and even vision changes.

How stress affects vision

When the body is stressed, your pupils dilate to allow more light to enter so you can see potential threats more clearly. However, high levels of adrenaline can cause pressure on the eyes, resulting in blurred vision.

“Many patients are not always aware of the impact of stress on their visual health and function,” says Barbara Horn, OD, president of the American Optometric Association. “The ocular impact of stress may range from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating vision loss.”

Yes, stress may be causing your eye twitching (also known as a lid myokymia). This lid twitching is a result of the continuous contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle. The twitching is typically benign and temporary and only affects one eye.

Stress can lead to vision loss, not only causing new conditions but also worsening existing conditions.

For example, research published in the EPMA Journal in 2018 concluded that ongoing psychological stress and the associated increased level of cortisol are risk factors in the development and progression of deteriorating vision.

Cortisol can be one of the major causes of several serious vision diseases, including glaucoma, optic neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Emotions and vision issues

The term functional or hysterical vision loss is used to describe any vision impairment that cannot be explained by pathology or structural abnormalities. It has also been described as a “conversion disorder.”

This loss of vision occurs outside the patient's conscious awareness.

The “conversion” is the repression of emotions (such as fear and/or anger) that are converted to a significant reduction in vision. These patients complain of significant blur even in the absence of refractive error (need for glasses) or pathology (disease).

These patients have no issues with ocular motility (movement and alignment of the eyes) but do struggle with significant reduction in visual acuity. Their visual field is affected and appears to be tube-shaped.

Resolution often occurs with awareness of the condition, low-plus lenses and/or counseling to assist the patient.

Symptoms of stress

If the bad news is that stress can cause vision loss, the good news is that reducing stress levels may help reverse the decline and restore vision.

Horn notes that various common lifestyle factors and activities can induce eye stress, such as performing more close-up work, working longer hours and using more digital technology.

“As technology continues to advance, it’s difficult to escape the need to use our eyes more frequently and for longer periods of time,” she says.

Stress can literally make your eyes sore. Digital eye strain, for example, can trigger headaches and cause the muscles around the eyes to become strained.

Fortunately, most stress-related eye problems are temporary, especially once the contributing stressor is addressed.

Ways to ease your stress

Since stress is practically a given in our lives, learning how to reduce its effects on our bodies, minds and eyes is paramount.

Some of the most basic steps to reduce stress are simple and cost little or nothing.

“Exercising, getting a full eight hours of sleep at night, eating a healthy diet, spending more time outdoors and practicing meditation are great ways to relieve stress,” Horn advises.

Other approaches like deep breathing exercises, stress management training and talk therapy are recommended to slow the progression of vision loss.

If these approaches don’t work and stress-related vision symptoms persist, see your eye care professional for immediate attention.

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