How Stress Affects Your Vision, and What to Do About It

Everyone experiences stress differently — physically, mentally and emotionally. Some people may experience sleeping problems, headaches, digestive issues or even visual problems as a side effect of stress. If your vision seems to get worse when you're stressed, you should know there's a connection between the two.

There are ways to prevent this issue from happening, but first, it's important to understand why it occurs in the first place.

How Stress Affects Your Eyes

Stress starts in the sympathetic nervous system, the part of your system that sends fight-or-flight signals. It's the body's natural response when it thinks you're in danger and also when you're feeling overwhelmed. If the parasympathetic nervous system – the one that balances you out and calms you back down – doesn't kick in, you remain stressed. 

The problem with being in a constant state of stress is that it can potentially lead to health issues you didn't anticipate. For instance, due to the adrenaline hormone released during times of stress, your eyes remain dilated, and this can lead to light sensitivity, eye twitching, tightening of the eye muscles and blurry vision, according to the Optometry Center for Vision Therapy. In fact, researchers have found that chronic stress can lead to conditions such as optic nerve damage and glaucoma. This is because stress elevates cortisol levels and can cause extra pressure in the eye and brain. Additionally, your cardiovascular system is also affected by stress, and if blood flow isn't well regulated, it can potentially lead to issues with your heart and to vision loss. 


How to minimize stress

As with any stress-related health issues, the key to avoiding these vision problems is to find healthy ways to manage stress. Some ways to minimize stress include the following.

Take screen breaks: Staring at a screen for an extended period of time can lead to headaches, blurry vision and dry eyes, all of which can put extra strain on the eye. The American Optometric Association recommends following the 20-20-20 rule, which requires taking breaks from a screen every 20 minutes and looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.   

Exercising: Cardiovascular activity isn't only beneficial for your heart health, it's also good for reducing stress, according to Harvard Health. It helps promote blood flow across your body and reduces blood pressure. High blood pressure can put you at risk of heart disease, stroke and eye problems because it puts extra pressure on your blood vessels. 


Meditation: Meditation can not only reduce your levels of stress, it can also lessen anxiety, insomnia and depression, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. One study found that people who meditate have less of the pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines, due to reduced stress. If you aren't sure where to begin, try out these meditation apps to keep you zen during the stressful moments of life. 

Breath work: Breathing is an involuntary action that's controlled by our autonomic nervous system. In other words, we don't think about it when we're doing it. However, knowing how to use your breath as a stress management tool can be helpful.  Breath work is mainly used with meditation and has been found to reduce anxiety, depression and anger, and to improve cognitive health, which benefits your system as a whole. There are different breath work techniques you can follow, such as box breathing (used to calm the nervous system during fight-or-flight mode) or belly breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing). 


Get enough sleep: Getting about eight hours of sleep a night is key to letting your eyes rest and recover from all the work they put in during the day. Not getting enough sleep can also cause dry eyes, which make you more susceptible to infections. In some cases, you may notice eye spasms and twitching, sensitivity to light or blurry vision. It's also been found that if you have the sleep disorder sleep apnea, there's an increased chance of developing glaucoma, possibly due to the lack of oxygen circulating as you sleep. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, it's important to get assessed and treated by an appropriate doctor.

It's normal to experience stress, but chronic stress can lead to many health issues, including harm to your eyes. Learning how to manage stress can improve your chances of maintaining healthy eyes. If you suspect your eye issues stem from factors beyond stress, we recommend seeing an ophthalmologist, who can run the proper tests and give you a diagnosis and treatment.


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