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Are Your Eyes Feeling Your Stress?

By Jennifer I. Hui, MD

Our eyes are truly the windows to our souls. They also give important clues and are general indicators of our overall wellness. With many of us feeling stress at this time, it is important to note that even our eyes can be affected. 

During stressful times, you may notice familiar symptoms with increasing frequency, or perhaps new findings all together. Stress leads to heightened awareness, increased sensitivity to triggers, and may cause poor sleep, concentration and irritability. Any one of these factors or combination may cause eye symptoms.

Blurry vision is a concerning issue that may arise with stress. With sustained increased adrenaline, the pupils may be more dilated, which, in turn, affects our ability to focus. Vague feelings of visual non-clarity may plague you at various times of the day. You may find yourself blinking more often or feeling the need to wash your eyes out (or use drops) to try and clear your vision. You may also experience burning and/or itching as well as the urge to rub your eyes, but in this current pandemic, we must be very mindful to avoid touching our faces, noses, mouths – and especially our eyes – to reduce the risk of infection. 

At times, you may note dryness or perhaps episodic tearing. Dryness may be exacerbated by poor sleep or lack of sleep and perhaps increased use of TVs or computers. Screen time of any sort decreases our natural blink rate, which worsens dryness. Your body may reflexively make more tears to try to compensate for this dryness, but the tearing also naturally leads to the urge to rub the eyes.

Another interesting phenomenon is the periodic, random twitching of an eyelid called myokymia. Myokymia is a benign condition that is often triggered by stress, lack of sleep and excessive caffeine intake (which may be tempting if you did not get a good night’s sleep). The twitching which comes and goes may last only for a few minutes or even hours. It is usually unilateral and typically affects just one of your four eyelids. While it may be quite bothersome to the sufferer, it is most often unnoticeable to observers. Myokymia is almost always self-limited and you may go years between bouts.

It is helpful to realize and remember that ocular symptoms should improve with time. Self-care is not only important for our mental well-being, but for the health of our eyes as well. Take time for your preferred method of relaxation and try to sleep and rest whenever it is convenient or your body tells you. 

For symptomatic relief of burning or itching, over-the-counter artificial tears may be soothing. Placing the drops in the refrigerator can make them feel even more refreshing. However, it is important to avoid drops that are formulated for “red eyes” as prolonged use of these drops often leads to worsened, rebound redness. 

If you are reluctant to venture out to purchase drops, many people find relief with eye compresses which may be warm (warm tap water) or cool (rinse a wash cloth in ice water or cool it in the refrigerator). There is no correct temperature, just listen to your eyes!

Dr. Hui is the founder of The Eyelid Institute in Palm Desert. She is a board-certified ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon with a special interest in helping patients with eyelid, lacrimal and orbital conditions. She can be reached at (760) 610.2677.

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