Rapid heart rate, fast breathing, and a sudden, overwhelming feeling of panic — anxiety can cause these physical and mental changes.
Some people report other changes when their anxiety is high, namely, floaters or flashes of light that have them seeing stars.
We examine if, how, and why you may experience visual changes related to anxiety.
Some people may describe seeing floaters or flashes when they have anxiety. You might see floaters and flashes of light simultaneously.
These are small, dark specks that you may see, especially if you look at light.
Some people also describe them as squiggly lines, strands, or spots.
The floaters don’t follow your eye movements as much as you would expect. You can usually see the floaters more when you look at something bright, such as the sky, a bright light, or plain white paper.
Flashes are sudden sparks of light that may flicker across your vision. They may also appear like light strands that affect your vision.
The concept that anxiety or other strong emotions could cause changes in what a person sees isn’t a new concept. Unfortunately, it’s not very well researched.
Anxiety and depression
The surveyors asked questions about how frequently the participant’s experienced eye floaters, how severe their symptoms were, and if the person saw eye flashes.
They then asked about a person’s psychological response to the flashes and floaters, including questions about depression and anxiety.
At the study’s conclusion, the group who had eye flashes reported greater incidence of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress levels compared to the group that didn’t see floaters or flashes.
The results of this study bring up a “chicken or egg” debate where researchers contemplate if flashes or floaters create anxiety or vice-versa.
Migraine and stress
Eye flashes from a migraine aura may appear like jagged lines or cause a person’s vision to appear wavy.
As stress can be a trigger for some migraine attacks, it’s possible there’s a connection between stress, migraine, and eye flashes.
There aren’t many other studies that suggest that stress can lead to problems with vision.
Dry eye disease can cause symptoms like:
However, the condition doesn’t usually cause floaters or eye flashes.
For the most part, floaters and flashes of light may not be a cause for concern. They can be a natural occurrence that may occur due to age-related changes in the gel inside the eye.
If you’ve started noticing floaters or flashes of light in your vision, make an appointment with an eye doctor.
If you do tend to see flashes of light that seem to get worse at times when you’re stressed, you can talk to your doctor about steps you could take if they’re cause for concern. Treating the underlying causes of your stress may go a long way in reducing the flashes of light.
Stress-relieving exercises may help, such as:
- taking a walk
- doing breathing exercises
- getting more rest
Doctors separate the symptoms of eye flashes and eye floaters.
Most doctors consider floaters a natural part of the aging process and a normal variation of vision in some people. They’re usually less concerning as a symptom and don’t always signal any sort of underlying eye problem.
An exception is if you suddenly start to see a lot more eye floaters than usual. If this symptom goes along with peripheral vision loss — sometimes called tunnel vision — this could indicate a retinal detachment.
A retinal detachment is a medical emergency that requires fast treatment to prevent vision loss.
Eye flashes can be more concerning. They can indicate trauma to the eye, such as a blow to the eye or rubbing your eyes too hard, changes to the gel inside the eyes, or excess force on the retina that can lead to a retinal detachment.
Floaters and flashes can be normal variations in vision. If your eye doctor has examined your eyes and ruled out causes like retinal tears or detachments, then you usually don’t have to worry if you see them in the future as long as they’re not getting worse.
Sometimes flashes vary in their severity. You may notice them more for a certain time period, then they can appear to fade or just bother you less. Knowing that they aren’t cause for medical concern may help.
If you experience the following symptoms, see your doctor immediately:
- sudden increase in eye floaters
- sudden increase in eye flashes
- peripheral vision loss
- your vision feels like a dark curtain has been placed over the eye
- you’ve been hit in the eye and you start seeing light flashes
These symptoms can all indicate that you have a retinal detachment and need to seek emergency medical attention.
You should also see your doctor if your anxiety starts to affect your daily life. Examples of symptoms that warrant a trip to your doctor’s office include:
- You experience anxiety more days than you don’t.
- You’ve had panic attacks or seem to be having more panic attacks than usual.
- Your anxiety keeps you from performing your job or school duties.
- Your anxiety keeps you from doing things you used to love, including going out in public, engaging in hobbies, or seeing loved ones.
These symptoms may indicate an anxiety disorder. A doctor can help you find solutions to manage your anxiety.
If you aren’t sure if your eye floaters or flashes are cause for concern, call your eye doctor. They can listen to your symptoms and suggest if you should come in to seek medical attention.
Otherwise, these changes in vision may just be normal for you, and you notice them more in times of stress or anxiety.