Stress Can Be Hazardous to Your Eyes

Stress can impact your life in a variety of ways. You know about good stress—the type that's necessary to make a really killer presentation or perform your best in a competition. But stress has an evil side, too. Bad stress can have emotional, physiological, and behavioral consequences.

People who lead very stressful lives often experience the physiological fight-or-flight response, which gets the adrenaline pumping, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy. But chronic stress—when your mind and body feel constantly on edge, with no relief—can build up over time and cause health problems.

Aside from heart disease, sleep deprivation, digestive distress, depression, obesity, and memory impairment, stress can manifest itself in the eyes as well. Rajeev Ramchandran, MD, a retinal specialist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Rochester Medical Center says the problem starts when chronic stress contributes to hypertension.

"High blood pressure can impact vision by damaging the microvascular structure of the eye," he explains. "If blood pressure is chronically elevated, arteries can harden due to atherosclerosis. These arteries travel alongside more pliable veins, which may be blocked or occluded by the hardened arteries. This can lead to vision loss that may be permanent."

Debilitating migraine headaches can also be triggered by stress causing visual symptoms such as auras (flashes of light), defects in the vision or blind spots. Another visual outcome of stress is the release of steroid hormones within the body, which can create problems such as central serous chorioretinopathy (CSCR) in the eye. According to Ramchandran, CSCR occurs when the vessels of the choroid (the layer beneath the retina of the eye) swell and leak fluid, distorting vision.

"Blurry vision from CSCR occurs most often in men with Type A personalities between the ages of 30 and 50 but it can affect women too," Ramchandran explains. "For most individuals, vision returns to normal within a few months by making lifestyle changes to reduce the stress in their lives."

Working long hours on the computer can also be hazardous to the health of your eyes. "Headaches and dry eyes are side effects of this type of work," says the ophthalmology expert who recommends taking frequent computer breaks. "As we age our ability to focus on close objects is naturally impaired and we need reading glasses or bifocals to see up close. The inner eye muscles that work to change the shape of the lens in the eye is more easily strained with age, which may lead to headaches, eye pain, or eyes that feel tired. Be sure to look away from the computer every hour and focus on something else to relax your inner eye muscles."

If you wear glasses, wearing the right prescription is essential in order to avoid undue eye muscle strain.

Eye twitching can also be a consequence of stress, but Ramchandran says it's most often caused by fatigue. "Blepharospasm (eye twitching) is an involuntary movement of the eyelid that is unpredictable and usually stops within a few minutes," says the doctor. Twitching that occurs for an extended period of time or on and off for prolonged periods is not normal, however.

"If the eye lid closes completely with the twitch, if the eye is swollen, red, or results in any discharge, see a doctor immediately," Ramchandran recommends. "On rare occasions, twitching may signal something more serious such as an eye infection or neurological problem."

Eye drops can be helpful for dry, irritated eyes, but Ramchandran advises consulting an eye specialist before starting to use any drop for the eye. "If red eyes are caused by dryness, drops can wet the ocular surface providing relief. However, one should avoid eye drops that are advertised for relieving redness of the eyes. These may just constrict the blood vessels of the conjunctiva or skin over the white of the eye and, with chronic use, may result in a rebound effect that causes the blood vessels to remain dilated and the eye to look red again. Consult an eye doctor first before using any eye drop."

Of all the effects of chronic stress, hypertension (high blood pressure) is perhaps the most serious. "Because it's silent, people can walk around unaware of dangerously high blood pressure," warns Ramchandran. "Stress management is essential for emotional well-being and physical health. Seeing an eye doctor on a regular basis is also essential to maintaining good vision." Make an appointment today.




Interview with Rajeev Ramchandran, MD
Retinal specialist and assistant professor of ophthalmology
Flaum Eye Institute
University of Rochester Medical Center
Rochester, NY

National Institutes of Health

American Academy of Ophthalmology