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How depression changes your vision and makes the world look hazy

woman depressed in bed with her head in her lap

Can depression affect your vision?

If you experience mental illness and feel as though your world is “gray,” you are not alone. There are many studies to support the claim that depression affects vision. This can involve seeing colors in paler shades or even having more intense symptoms of existing eye problems.

One phenomenon is how depression can cause the world to literally look and feel dull and gray.

Researchers around the world have long studied the connection between depression and the function of the eyes. And now it is understood why depressed patients often complain of haziness or seeing the world in dull colors. It’s because of something called reduced contrast sensitivity.

What is contrast sensitivity in the eyes?

Contrast sensitivity refers to the eye’s ability to distinguish an object from its background. It’s the way we are able to see the difference between black and white. And it gives us the ability to sense bright colors, designs and patterns.

Some people have reduced contrast sensitivity. This makes the colors of objects less vivid and more “gray.” This can occur as a result of several conditions, including depression. 

How does depression affect contrast sensitivity?

Scientists have found there is a disconnection between the brain and the vision system in depressed individuals. And they believe this disconnection is responsible for reduced contrast sensitivity. 

In other words, if information isn’t properly delivered from the brain to the eyes, visual perception can be altered. When this occurs, colors and patterns do not appear quite as vivid.

Further studies support the idea that the retina lacks a sensitivity to contrast in those who have depression. Various retinal testing was completed in people with and without depression. But additional contrast sensitivity testing studies are needed to verify the connection. 

Did you know depression isn’t the only condition that can lower vision perception? Several other factors can be associated with reduced contrast sensitivity. They include:

Is there treatment for reduced contrast sensitivity?

Treatment will depend on the cause of this reduction. When possible, depression should be treated by a mental health provider. In addition to treating the depression, a doctor may recommend a number of changes to improve contrast sensitivity. 

They can include:

  • Installing enhanced lighting around the house

  • Adjusting the contrast settings on televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets

  • Using black ink on white paper when writing or taking notes

  • Special tinted eyeglass lenses — yellow, orange, brown or rose tints are often recommended to improve contrast

These lifestyle changes can help regardless of the cause (or causes) of reduced contrast sensitivity. 

Can depression cause vision loss?

Reduced contrast sensitivity isn’t the only vision-related symptom of depression. It’s important to understand how else mental health can affect the eyes.

Research shows that patients with sight-threatening conditions are at an even higher risk for vision loss if they also have depression. 

Conditions that can lead to vision loss to be aware of include:

Depression may not necessarily cause vision loss. But the chances of losing your eyesight can increase if one of these vision-threatening conditions is also present.

Additionally, someone who has a serious eye condition may have concerns about the outcome. This can contribute to stress and anxiety. This causes a cycle of mental health and vision problems.

One survey discovered that people who have functional vision loss are at a significantly high risk for depression. Functional vision loss makes it hard to perform everyday tasks, even with the help of vision correction. These can include driving, seeing at night or even reading labels. 

A strong visual impairment interrupts daily life for many people. This often leads to feelings of discouragement, loneliness and depression. 

Research also shows that those with functional vision loss are as much as 90% more likely to be depressed than those without the impairment.

SEE RELATED: How vision loss impacts mental health

Can depression cause other vision problems?

Researchers also believe that there is an association with mental health disorders and eye problems. These include dry eye disease and inflammatory eye diseases (like uveitis, conjunctivitis, etc.).

Someone with one of these conditions may also find that their depression makes the symptoms even worse. 

Those facing vision loss are also more likely to experience some kind of psychological distress.

Do antidepressants affect vision?

Yes, studies and data analyses show that certain depression medications can contribute to eye problems in some cases.

Both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are often used to treat depression. These medications have been known to cause side effects such as nausea, fatigue and occasional sleeping problems. They’ve also caused vision problems in some people.

A study published in the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine indicates SSRIs and SNRIs may cause visual issues such as:

Additional studies found that dry eye disease associated with depression can be made worse by SSRIs.

Note that these side effects do not apply to everyone who takes an SSRI or SNRI. 

Commonly prescribed SSRIs include:

  • Citalopram (Celexa)

  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

Commonly prescribed SNRIs include:

  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta)

  • Levomilnacipran (Fetzima)

  • Desvenlafaxine (Pristiq)

In addition to the effects of SSRIs and SNRIs, other types of antidepressants can cause visual symptoms. Dizziness and blurred vision are some of the most common side effects reported in atypical antidepressants. This includes bupropion (Wellbutrin), trazodone (Desyrel) and nefazodone (Serzone). 

As with SSRIs and SNRIs, these symptoms don’t occur in every patient. Contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of these side effects. And let the know if these symptoms interrupt your daily routine. Also be sure to ask your doctor if you have any other concerns about your medication’s side effects.

Other effects of depression

You may have symptoms of depression that don’t affect your eyes, but could in the future.

Physical symptoms of depression include:

  • Constant feelings of sadness and/or anxiousness

  • Losing interest in things that you once loved

  • Trouble sleeping, falling asleep or staying asleep

  • Tiredness even after a night’s rest 

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Headaches, stomach aches and other pain that doesn’t respond to treatment

  • Loss or gain of appetite

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

  • Suicidal thoughts

It’s important to recognize these symptoms and let your doctor know about them. If left untreated, they can become worse and lead to other health problems. This can include problems in the eyes, whether haziness or something more.

Always talk to your doctor if you have concerns or questions about your mental health. And find out how it may contribute to your vision. You should also inform your eye doctor about any family history of depression or anxiety.

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Factors affecting contrast sensitivity in health individuals: A pilot study. Turkish Journal of Ophthalmology. April 2017.

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Depression affects visual perception. University of Helsinki. March 2021.

Visual contrast sensitivity in major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. July 2013.

Techniques to enhance contrast. American Optometric Association. June 2020.

Contrast sensitivity studies and test — a review. International Journal of Ophthalmology and Clinical Research. 2020.

Anxiety and depression in patients with advanced macular degeneration: current perspectives. Clinical Ophthalmology. 2016.

Eye diseases that can cause legal blindness. BrightFocus Foundation. July 2021.

Association between diabetes-related eye complications and symptoms of anxiety and depression. JAMA Ophthalmology. September 2016.

Visual impairment and mental health: Unmet needs and treatment options. Clinical Ophthalmology. December 2020.

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Depression, stress, quality of life, and dry eye disease in Korean women: A population-based study. Cornea: The Journal of Cornea and External Disease. July 2015.

Development and persistence of patient-reported visual problems associated with serotonin reuptake inhibiting antidepressants. International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine. February 2022.

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Anxiety and depression in inflammatory eye disease: exploring the potential impact of topical treatment frequency as a putative psychometric item. BMJ Open Ophthalmology. July 2021. 

​​Eye inflammation and inflammatory eye disease. Prevent Blindness. Accessed April 2022.

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