Surprising Links Between Stress and the Eyes
Stress can interfere with your sleep, skin and digestion. But did you also know it can affect your eyes?
Your eyes undergo changes such as increased intraocular pressure (IOP) when you’re stressed or anxious, whether for a short time or on a regular basis. These changes are often temporary but it’s important to know how stress can affect your eyes, especially if you have glaucoma or an ocular surface disease such as dry eye.
The link between stress and the eyes is not fully understood, but here’s what we know: When we feel stressed, our body releases hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare our bodies to respond to perceived threats. You might recognize this as the “fight or flight” reaction. Adrenaline, for example, causes our pupils to dilate so that we can more clearly see possible threats.
Over time, high levels of these hormones can lead to:
- Elevated eye pressure
Brief changes in eye pressure aren’t necessarily harmful and you may not even notice them. But over a long period of time, changes in eye pressure can damage the optic nerve. This is especially true if you have the most common form of glaucoma, known as primary open-angle glaucoma. Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness for people over age 60, so it’s important to get regular eye exams as you age.
Stress and Glaucoma
Stress does not cause the most common form of glaucoma, known as primary open-angle or wide-angle glaucoma. But feeling overwhelmed or stressed on a regular basis can discourage people from taking their medicines or going to follow-up appointments, says Dr. McKinney. It also makes it hard to follow a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
Over time, the effects of stress and anxiety can contribute to optic nerve damage. Mindfulness meditation, mental health counseling and other forms of stress relief may help counteract these effects and slow the progression of eye disease.
In the worst-case scenario, stress can trigger an attack of acute angle-closure (also called narrow-angle) glaucoma. Angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to prevent vision loss. If you suddenly develop severe eye pain, foggy vision, nausea or begin halos around lights, call your doctor immediately.