Persistent stress may lead to vision loss, study shows

A new analysis of clinical reports and existing research suggests that "stress is both consequence and cause of vision loss." The findings indicate that clinicians should refrain from adding any unnecessary stress to their patients, and that reducing stress may help to restore vision.

When a person loses their eyesight, they may experience a high level of mental stress in the form of worries and anxiety about the situation.

Sometimes, in more severe circumstances, depression and social isolation may ensue.

But does the reverse also occur? Can stress actually lead to a loss of vision? A new study, published in the EPMA Journal — the official publication of the European Association for Predictive, Preventive, and Personalized Medicine — suggests that it can.

The new research was led by Prof. Bernhard Sabel, director of the Institute of Medical Psychology at Magdeburg University in Germany.

In their paper, Prof. Sabel and colleagues explain that persistent stress, which raises levels of the hormone cortisol, can negatively affect our vascular and sympathetic nervous systems.

This, in turn, affects our brain and eyes, which may lead to conditions such as glaucoma and optic neuropathy — ultimately resulting in complete vision loss.

Stress causes and worsens eye conditions

After analyzing hundreds of studies and clinical trials, Prof. Sabel and his colleagues conclude that stress is not only a consequence of vision loss, but that it may also aggravate eye conditions.

As he explains, "There is clear evidence of a psychosomatic component to vision loss, as stress is an important cause — not just a consequence — of progressive vision loss resulting from diseases such as glaucoma, optic neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration."

Some of the studies reviewed in the new research even show that reducing stress can help to restore vision.

The authors also explain that patients have often communicated their suspicions that stress worsens their eye condition. However, the studies documenting this phenomenon of psychosomatic effects on eye health are insufficient.

'Doctors should inculcate optimism'

Such a psychosomatic approach to ophthalmology, explain Prof. Sabel and his team, has various consequences for clinical practice.

For one thing, stress reduction strategies such as meditation, stress management techniques, or psychological counseling may serve to restore vision and improve eye health.

Such techniques should not just complement conventional medicine, write the authors, but they should also be used preventively.

Secondly, the researchers continue, "doctors should try their best to inculcate positivity and optimism in their patients while giving them the information the patients are entitled to."

Study co-author Muneeb Faiq, Ph.D. — a clinical researcher with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, as well as with the Department of Ophthalmology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City — echoes the same sentiments.

He says, "The behavior and words of the treating physician can have far-reaching consequences for the prognosis of vision loss. Many patients are told that the prognosis is poor and that they should be prepared to become blind one day."

"Even when this is far from certainty and full blindness almost never occurs, the ensuing fear and anxiety are a neurological and psychological double-burden with physiological consequences that often worsen the disease condition."

Muneeb Faiq, Ph.D.

The authors admit that more clinical studies are necessary to confirm their findings and to assess the efficacy of various stress reduction strategies for slowing down the progressive loss of vision and for improving the chances of vision recovery.

Such clinical trials are needed to provide a solid foundation for the field of psychosomatic ophthalmology, say the researchers.