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Depression after surgery: What you need to know

May 26, 2017
Experiencing depression after surgery is common. Having less than perfect health, the cost of surgery, plus other worries, may trigger feelings of hopelessness or despair.

It is helpful for people and their family members to understand why this happens and what can be done about it. This article explores the signs and symptoms of depression after surgery, what causes them, and how they may be treated.

Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression is a psychological illness that can make life difficult for those affected by it.

[young woman feeling unwell looking at the window]
Depression can cause fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and stress.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty making decisions
  • eating much more or less than normal
  • sleeping much more or less than normal
  • feeling a loss of interest in regular activities
  • feelings of anxiety, stress, irritability, or aggression
  • fidgeting or restlessness
  • feelings of despair or hopelessness with no cause
  • thoughts of harming oneself or others

Though depression affects the mind, it can lead to physical illness as well. Depression may also mean recovering from an injury or operation takes longer.

Why can depression happen after an operation?

There are many reasons for a person to experience depression during their journey through surgery.

After the operation, symptoms of depression may be linked to such things as:

  • reaction to anesthesia
  • antibiotics
  • pain and discomfort while recovering
  • reactions the body has to certain painkillers
  • physical, mental, and emotional stresses caused by the disorder and/or surgery
  • facing the possibility of death

Post-operative depression behaves differently in each person.

A recent overview posted to BMC Surgery suggests depression is common in people due to have surgery. If these feelings or symptoms are not dealt with, they may lead to similar symptoms after the surgery, as well.

One common factor with depression and anxiety symptoms throughout the entire process maybe the high stress levels people can experience. This includes physical, mental, and emotional stress.

Any disorder that causes a person to feel pain can be a source of physical stress. The surgery itself is also a cause of physical stress.

Being diagnosed with a serious illness can lead to emotional and mental stress. Trying to balance work, social, and personal life during the process may add to that stress.

The whole process can take its toll on a person’s mental health. These feelings may stay with them after surgery, if they are not properly dealt with.

How to reduce postoperative depression

[closeup of caring hands in a hospital]
Sharing symptoms with health care professionals, friends, and family can help a person manage their anxiety before and after the surgery.

It is normal for people to feel anxiety about the outcome of their surgery before it happens. As explored above, depression after surgery is also quite routine.

However, there are ways that people can reduce the impact this postoperative depression may have.

Understanding what to expect

It is a good idea to find out what to expect before, during, and after surgery. Education around the process may help people handle any symptoms of anxiety or depression that may develop.

Asking a doctor any questions that come to mind can help put someone at ease.

Monitoring and sharing symptoms

People should monitor any troubling symptoms that show up during the process. This will help them to handle these issues.

The nature of any symptoms should be shared with a doctor or mental healthcare professional to know if any form of treatment is necessary.

Reaching out to friends and family

Talking to friends and family is important. Having a group of friends and loved ones around helps people to feel supported. It may also increase their feelings of wellbeing.

Exercising regularly

Exercise may be beneficial for people to prevent depression after surgery.

Firstly, exercise helps to strengthen the body and increase fitness in preparation for an operation.

Secondly, it improves an individual’s energy levels and their mood. Regular exercise may also increase self-esteem and boost the overall quality of life.

Which surgeries have high postoperative depression rates?

There is no particular surgery that leads directly to symptoms of depression.

However, research suggests that certain conditions have a higher chance of leading to postoperative depression. These include conditions where chronic pain is a symptom, as well as any of the following:

  • heart surgery
  • gastric bypass surgery
  • brain surgery
  • hip replacement
  • hysterectomy
  • cancer resection
  • mastectomy
  • plastic surgery

Anyone scheduled to have one of these surgeries may be at a higher risk of experiencing depression afterward. Also, serious surgery of any kind can trigger postoperative depression.

During follow-up visits, doctors will usually ask a person questions about any symptoms of depression they may have had. This can include questions about:

  • eating or sleeping habits
  • emotional stability
  • energy levels
  • thought patterns

A doctor who sees signs of depression will often refer an individual to a mental health service to discuss these issues further.

Overcoming depression after surgery

Depression cannot be dealt with in one day, and no person should expect to get over their symptoms overnight.

However, there are many little steps to be taken which can improve someone’s sense of wellbeing. This may help them to avoid more serious issues at a later date. Also, friends and loved ones can help them stay motivated and on track towards full recovery.

Exercising regularly

Regular exercise is often recommended for postoperative patients, as soon as it is physically possible. This may mean simply walking down the street everyday. However, these seemingly simple activities can add up over time.

Regular exercise helps the body to build strength, as it recovers. The act of getting outside and breathing fresh air may boost a person’s morale, as well.

[young woman sleeping]
Maintaining a regular bedtime and waking routine can help people manage the symptoms of depression.

Sticking to a sleep schedule

Sleep is important for everyone, but it may be even more important for someone trying to overcome depression.

This does not mean they should sleep more than normal, but they should try to set a regular sleep schedule, and adhere to it. Having a regular bedtime and waking up at the same time everyday may help people feel their life is in better order.

Dealing with emotions

A person with postoperative depression may find their emotions building up. It is important to let feelings like anger or sadness out in healthy ways, as they occur.

People may choose to see a doctor or therapist to discuss these feelings. They may also ask a friend or family member to lend a kind ear.

Staying healthy

Eating a healthful, balanced diet is an important part of a postoperative recovery program.

It may be particularly beneficial for people recovering from feelings of depression. Supplements and healthful lifestyle choices can help as well. Lifestyle choices may include:

  • quitting or reducing smoking
  • cutting alcohol consumption

Setting improvement goals

Noticing progress with their recovery may help people reduce feelings and symptoms of depression.

Setting realistic improvement goals, no matter how small, can boost the morale and keep a person motivated towards the next one.

Goal-setting may also help to maintain a positive attitude. It helps to focus on how far the person has come, rather than how far they have left to go.

Being patient

It can be upsetting to lose the sense of normality of everyday life. However, frustration with the recovery process tends not to help anyone involved.

If possible, people should try to be patient with themselves, and their recovery process after surgery. Particularly, they should try not to worry about returning to their responsibilities before they are fully better.

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