If you’ve ever stood up too quickly or spun in a circle for too long, you may be familiar with the sudden changes in your vision. Your vision may go black or red, or you might see white flashes across your eyesight. Or maybe you’re more familiar with the phenomenon of staring off into space and suddenly being confronted by small, round or squiggly shapes floating before you. But when you reach out to grab them, they’re not there – because they’re in your eyes.
But what causes these unusual – albeit usually harmless – sights? And more importantly for our purposes, does anxiety cause eye flashes (or floaters)?
What Are Eye Floaters and Flashes?
Before we dive into the causes of eye flashes and floaters, let’s take a look at what they are.
First Up, Floaters
When it comes to seeing shapes in your eyes, “floaters” is a term that can describe:
- Specks, spots, or cloud shapes
- Spiderweb patterns
- Threads or squiggly lines
- Dark or black spots
In simple terms, floaters are clusters of cells or proteins in your vitreous humor, also called the vitreous body. This is the clear gel that fills most of your eye and helps it hold its shape. (“Humor” here comes from the Latin word for “liquid” or “fluid”). The vitreous chamber is the hollow chamber that holds your vitreous humor. This construct provides a way for light to reach your retina, which detects the light that your brain interprets as eyesight.
When you see floaters, then, you’re not seeing the floaters themselves, but their shadow over your retina. This is why they move with your eyes, and why you can’t focus on them too hard without them seeming to disappear.
Onto the Flashes
On the other hand, eye flashes may appear as sparks, strands, threads, or spots of light in your visual field. Often, these occur in settings with dark or dim lighting. Additionally, many people see eye flashes first thing in the morning that fade or disappear as the day goes on. This appearance of light may look like
- Jagged or moving streaks of white lightning
- Camera flashes
- A bright spot
- Bursts of light like a firework
- “Seeing stars,” similar to when you hit the back of your head
Now that we know what both eye flashes and floaters are, we’re that much closer to answering our question, “Does anxiety cause eye flashes?”
What Causes Eye Flashes and Floaters?
Eye flashes and floaters have slightly different causes. Typically, the root cause can be drawn to one factor of life: aging.
Causes of Eye Floaters
Eye floaters can occur during the natural aging process. As you get older, the vitreous humor in your eye begins to shrink. In turn, it can become stringy and “tug” at your retina, which causes visual disruptions such as floaters. Additionally, as the vitreous humor shrinks, it can gel into small, solid clumps of cells in your eye. These particles then begin to float around in your eye, creating free-falling floaters. When either the stringy or clumped-up vitreous moves in front of the macula, or center of your retina, they become visible in your line of sight.
Furthermore, a few other processes such as cataract surgery, eye injuries, and even diabetes can cause eye floaters. They are also more common in individuals with vision problems, particularly nearsightedness.
While it’s possible to correct eye floaters, oftentimes, the process is more dangerous than allowing the floaters to exist. In time, your brain corrects for the slight visual disturbance and notices them less and less. However, if your eye floaters become troublesome, there are a few – inherently risky – vision surgeries your doctor may recommend to ease your symptoms.
Causes of Eye Flashes
Eye flashes, like eye floaters, can be caused by various processes in the vitreous humor as you age. Typically, eye flashes result during activities or situations that cause the vitreous humor to rub, bump, or tug on the retina. In more serious cases, eye flashes may be the result of the vitreous humor moving away from your retina. This is known as “posterior vitreous detachment,” and most of the time, it is a non-threatening condition.
But in some cases, posterior vitreous detachment may cause the retina itself to tears. In turn, this allows the humor to flow out of the vitreous chamber and separate the retina from the underlying tissue. The process of your retina moving away from other tissues is known as “retinal detachment” and can lead to permanent vision loss.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that eye flashes may also be the result of severe headaches or migraines. While the science here is inconclusive, many scientists speculate that “ocular migraines,” as they’re known, are caused by spasms in the blood vessels that feed the retina.
But in all this explanation, we still haven’t answered our question – does anxiety cause eye flashes? It’s time to have an answer.
Does Anxiety Cause Eye Flashes?
The research connecting anxiety to eye flashes is almost nonexistent. While some people with anxiety report seeing eye flashes more when they’re anxious, there’s limited clinical proof that the two are related. But that doesn’t mean that there is no proof at all.
One survey study performed in 2017 and published in the Journal of Ophthalmology counted on the participation of 61 individuals with eye floaters. Each person was asked about the occurrence and frequency of eye floaters, as well as the possible presence of eye flashes. Furthermore, researchers inquired about any co-existing mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. These results were then compared to a group of 34 people who reported no eye floaters. The authors found that:
- Individuals who presented with eye flashes were more likely to have anxiety
- Eye flashes were more common with incidences of depression
- Stress was correlated with a more frequent appearance of eye flashes
Unfortunately, this study was unable to determine if anxiety does cause eye flashes, or if the presence of eye flashes causes more anxiety. They recommended that more clinical research is needed to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the two.