The effect of stress on the eyes

Medically reviewed by Tina Patel, Contact Lens Optician at Feel Good Contacts.

Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling under pressure, threatened or overwhelmed. The response can manifest itself physically, mentally, emotionally or visually and we may experience various symptoms as an effect of stress. This all depends on how your body responds. Symptoms of stress include anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, problems with digestion, migraines, and changes in vision.

According to Dr. John Sarno from the NYU School of Medicine, stress is the underlying cause of chronic pain and other symptoms. These symptoms are referred to as psychosomatic symptoms. Dr. Sarno’s theory states that in order for us to prevent ourselves from perceiving negative emotions, our brain creates symptoms to distract us.

Symptoms which can include changes within the eye and visual problems may simply be repressed emotions manifesting themselves physically.

woman looking stressed with her hands up to her face

How does stress affect your eyes?

Stress affects our eyes in many ways. When we feel stressed, our pupils dilate so that more light can enter, allowing us clearer vision of possible threats. Stress can also result in high levels of adrenaline which can lead to a build-up of pressure in the eye and a range of stress related vision problems including:

  • Blurry vision - objects appearing out of focus
  • Eye floaters - small black spots or squiggles swimming across your vision
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light) - difficulty or pain seeing in bright light
  • Dry eyes - when the eyes don't produce enough tears or the tears evaporate too quickly
  • Eye twitching - spasms of one or both eyes

More severe symptoms such as vision loss can also be a symptom of stress. Not only can stress cause new problems to arise, but it can also make existing problems worse.

When we are stressed, our cortisol levels increase. According to research published in the EPMA Journal in 2018, ‘continuous stress and elevated cortisol levels negatively impact the eye and brain.’ Stress is linked to eye diseases such as glaucoma and optical neuropathy, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

Can eye strain be caused by stress?

Feeling stressed all the time can cause your pupils to be dilated for long periods of time which can lead to eye strain.

Does stress affect eye pressure?

Yes, stress can affect eye pressure by dilating the pupils. The pressure inside the eye is known as intraocular pressure and high pressure inside the eye is referred to as ocular hypertension. Those with ocular hypertension are more at risk of developing glaucoma. Stress can lead to an increase in blood pressure which can raise eye pressure.

How to reduce the effects of stress on your vision

The best way to reduce the effects of stress on your vision is to reduce your stress levels. Exercise is a great way to manage stress. Not only can it improve your mental health, but it is excellent for eye health too.
Other useful ways to reduce the effects of stress on your vision include getting a good amount of sleep and following a healthy diet. Both the foods you eat, and sleep can affect your eyes and contribute to your stress levels and overall wellbeing.

Practicing meditation and mindfulness with deep breathing exercises is also a recommended way to manage stress levels and in doing so.

Once you've found a way to deal with stress, your symptoms should get better. However, if eye related symptoms still proceed, we recommend that you see your optician immediately.

Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only and does not replace medical care or an in-person check-up. Please check with an eyecare professional before purchasing any products or remedies. For information on our article review process, please refer to our Editorial Policy.

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