Let’s Talk About Stress — and What It’s Doing to Your Eyes

Stress hormones affect nearly every part of your body, including your eyes. Here’s how to recognize when stress is causing eye symptoms, and what to do about it.

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Maybe your eyelid starts twitching during a particularly busy week. Or your vision goes blurry while you’re working toward an important work deadline. What causes these eye symptoms? Are they anything to worry about?

Your eye issues could be tied to stress. It takes a toll on many parts of your body, and the eyes are no exception, says Evan Bayles, O.D. He’s an optometrist with Bluegrass Vision Care Network located within America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Newport, Kentucky.

We talked to Dr. Bayles about the different ways stress can affect your eyes and how to recognize when it’s time to visit your optometrist. Here’s what you need to know:

The Pros and Cons of Stress

When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases hormones to help you cope. The main stress hormone is called cortisol. It causes different systems in the body to react in ways that help us respond to challenges or threats.

The rush of cortisol causes our pupils to dilate, says Dr. Bayles. “We can actually develop tunnel vision, where we don’t see as wide of a view,” he explains.

This built-in stress response is our body’s way of alerting us to danger. It probably developed to help early humans outwit the perils of the wilderness.

In our modern world, this response is sometimes still helpful. If you’re playing a sport or giving a speech, for example, a short burst of stress hormones can help improve your focus.

But feeling stressed for long periods can do more harm than good.

“An overload of stress can cause a lot of issues, especially when it’s constant, day after day,” Dr. Bayles says. “We aren’t physiologically made up to handle that kind of stress load that our society has created.”

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The Eye-Stress Connection

Having too much cortisol in your system for too long can wreak havoc on your eyes. Remember, cortisol’s job is to help the body cope when it’s in crisis mode. It’s meant to be “turned off” when the crisis has passed.

Chronic stress means the cortisol spigot is essentially left in the “on” position. The result? It’s too much of a good thing.

“You can feel a lot of strain around your eyes,” Dr. Bayles says. “Everybody’s responses are going to be different based on their own physiology.”

You might experience:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Dry or watery eyes
  • Mild blurry vision
  • Floaters

Stress can be both a cause and consequence of vision problems, according to a 2018 literature review published in the journal EPMA. In other words, your poor eyesight can stress you out so much that it worsens your vision. On the other hand, having eyelid spasms could worsen your anxiety, contributing to this cycle of stress.

How to Give Your Eyes Relief from Chronic Stress

Stress-related eye symptoms aren’t something to just brush off, but Dr. Bayles has good news: “Most vision-related side effects of chronic stress are temporary,” he says.

And you can take steps to tackle these issues:

1. Learn your triggers. This is the obvious place to start, says Dr. Bayles, because knowing what pushes your buttons is the first step to managing stress.

For the next week or so, consider keeping a stress journal. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. You can even use your calendar. The idea is to track times when you’re on edge and jot down a few notes about what’s happening when those feelings set in.

2. Settle on a few go-to coping techniques. Learning to cope with stress more effectively can help you feel better overall, says Dr. Bayles.

A few ideas:

  • Make time for daily walks or other regular physical activities.
  • Pursue a hobby or other interest, such as volunteering.
  • Reach out to a go-to friend via phone or text.

3. Prioritize sleep. Healthy eyes depend on getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night, says Dr. Bayles. Among other things, your eyes need that downtime to replenish moisture levels and rest from the day’s work.

Good sleep is also an important stress buster in general, he adds. Commit to a regular sleep-wake cycle and see your primary care physician if you have trouble falling or staying asleep.

4. Keep your eyes lubricated. During stressful times, it helps to have artificial tears nearby. Use them as needed if your eyes begin to feel dry or irritated. Ask your optometrist to recommend a brand that’s right for you.

Also, remember to keep your body hydrated. It can be easy to forget to sip water when you’re stressed out. One simple strategy is to make a habit of carrying water with you and drink it during meals and snacks.

5. Give your eyes a break. Dr. Bayles says that he often reminds patients to follow the 20-20-20 rule throughout the day. It’s simple: Every 20 minutes, look up from whatever you’re doing and find something 20 feet away to focus on for at least 20 seconds.

“It gives your eyes a break and gives you a chance to reset and refocus,” Dr. Bayles says.

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When to See an Optometrist

If your symptoms don’t go away, make an appointment with an optometrist. They can check for underlying issues and suggest ways to ease your symptoms, Dr. Bayles says.

“A lot of times, just an updated glasses prescription will help patients,” Dr. Bayles says.

Ultimately, the best solution to stress-related eye complaints is finding ways to alleviate and cope with stress.

“Whether you practice meditation or deep breathing or journaling, working that into your schedule can help the entire body manage the stress,” Dr. Bayles says.

With stress reduction, most pesky eye problems should clear up quickly — and your overall mental and physical health will benefit too.