How to Prevent Depression After Surgery: 7 Expert Tips

Liz was a happy and healthy 28-year old who loved to travel and ran her own successful business. She had the life that she always dreamed of–a fiance she loved dearly, a beautiful house, a job that she was passionate about, friends she loved to death. She was planning for her next adventure in life, getting married to her fiance and then setting off for a world tour on her honeymoon. She had the entire year planned out already. 

However, everything changed when she found a lump in her breast. Even though the lump was benign, she had to go into surgery to have it removed. After surgery, she just wasn’t the person she used to be. The sparkle in her eyes faded as she struggled to do even the most essential things, such as take a bath. She grew irritable and would sleep for more than 14 hours a day. She didn’t feel like doing anything she loved, and her relationships started getting strained. 

What Liz was experiencing is an example of depression after surgery. Most people don’t realize how common it is to get depressed after going under a surgical procedure since it isn’t talked about much by experts. 

If you think about it, no matter how common surgery is these days, it still is a great deal of stress to your body. This is one of the reasons why it can harm your mental health and prevent you from doing things you did before. 

This is even more common if you have ever been depressed in the past or have a family history of depression. 

So, how to prevent depression after surgery? 

This blog post will go over a few things you can do to keep your mental health in check. Keep reading to learn more. 

#1) Get Up and Get Moving

It can be challenging to get moving right after having a major operation, especially if there is a lot of pain involved, or you might learn new ways of moving through a physical rehabilitation program. 

However, experts agree that getting moving after surgery is one of the most important things you can do to help accelerate your post-op recovery. 

But, how can physical activity help with your mental health? 

Research evidence suggests that physical activity is as efficient in managing depression as antidepressants are. This is because our brain releases dopamine (which we often refer to as the happy hormone) during exercise. 

In addition to that, physical activity after surgery can also help you avoid some post-op complications that might trigger depression. These include: 

  • Bedsores: These result from lying in bed in one position for long periods, causing skin lesions. These are painful and reduce the quality of life. 
  • Deep vein thrombosis: This dangerous condition causes blood clots to develop due to inactivity when blood is unable to pass through veins and vessels.
  • Pulmonary embolism: A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot in the circulatory system becomes lodged in the lungs. 
  • Muscle atrophy: This can lead to muscle weakness over several weeks, making the chore of getting out of bed even harder than it was before. What’s worse, muscle atrophy after surgery can diminish your ability to do the things you enjoyed before surgery, which in turn can increase your chances of post-op depression.

It’s normal to feel dizzy and sluggish after major surgery, but once a doctor declares you fit to move around, you should follow their advice. Remaining bedbound after surgery even after a doctor has told you to get up can extend the duration of your recovery process unnecessarily.

While it can take a few days or weeks to get back up to speed after surgery, it’s an integral part of the recovery process to ensure that you do get up no matter how poorly you’re feeling. Just the act of moving around and doing simple tasks such as making a cup of coffee can help mitigate the pre-depressive feelings of fatigue and inertia.

#2) Reach Out to Friends and Family

One of the things that cause post-surgical patients to fall into a state of depression is a feeling of social isolation that follows an extended hospital stay. 

While some people are overwhelmed with visitors trying to see them after their surgery, others may have friends and family members who are hanging back to give them some much-needed breathing room for rest and recovery.

Research suggests that having a strong social support system can act as a cushion against depression and help you keep your mental health in check. There are many good reasons for a person to reach out to friends and family after surgery, especially if they feel any impending depression. Here are some of them: 

Emotional and physical support 

Your friends and family can lend you a listening ear and help you unload your feelings and process them after you’ve had surgery. They can help you deal with your emotions and can even address your concerns. 

Not just that, your friends and family can even provide you with some physical support and help you out with things that you might not be able to do immediately–like mow your lawn, bring over meals, do a school run, etc. 

This feeling of community and being taken care of can help you feel much better. 

Knowledge of your circumstances

You must share how you’re feeling with someone you know, love, and trust so that they have a clear picture of your current circumstances and can help you weather the storm. 

Informational support

Not only can friends and family members provide emotional comfort, but they can also provide support in the form of information and other services. Your extended pool of companions has a much higher skill set than you as an individual alone, so times of weakness are the perfect opportunity to lean into those unique skills.

Our bodies are recovering from major trauma after having surgery, which means that we are processing a lot. Sometimes, it can be hard to identify and recognize our mental state in such situations. 

What may be apparent to our close friends and families may not be to us. So, this means that our friends and family would be better able to recognize the symptoms of depression. 

Before going into surgery it’s a good idea to get some support network set up with your friends and family so that you know you have someone available to help you if you need them. This show of support in and of itself can help stave off the loneliness and depression that can sometimes accompany postoperative surgeries.

#3) Eat a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet can help you recover from the surgery faster and help prevent depression. 

It’s normal to find yourself drawn to comfort food while you’re healing. However, you should keep that to a minimum and focus on having an overall healthy diet that contains the right proportion of micronutrients and macronutrients. 

Eating healthy food while recovering from surgery can help in several ways: 

Stress on the digestive system

It prevents stress on the digestive system. Your body after surgery is already going to dedicate a lot of energy to the healing process. You don’t want to divert any of that energy into unnecessary jobs like processing junk food or filtering out toxins like alcohol and nicotine.

Prevents unnecessary increase in inflammation 

Certain types of junk food such as high fructose corn syrup, refined sugars, seed/vegetable fats, and refined carbohydrates are all responsible for increased levels of inflammation in the body, which is a massive no-no after a surgical procedure all attempts are being made to reduce inflammation.

Reduces chances of post-op weight gain

If you undergo a surgery that affects your ability to get up and move around, comforting yourself with junk food can lead to an unwanted increase in excess weight. 

Gaining weight after surgery not only makes the recovery process more complicated since it can restrict mobility, it can also lead to other secondary medical issues such as hypertension or heart disease. It can also negatively impact your self-worth.

Aids in faster recovery

Eating healthy gives your body the building blocks it needs to repair itself. Without proper nutrition, your body will struggle to repair the damage caused by surgery. The additional time needed to heal without good food can lead to other postoperative complications.

To eat healthy after surgery, be sure to get in plenty of whole foods like fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of clear fluids to stay hydrated, and avoid junk food. Your doctor can give you a more specific set of dietary guidelines to follow to ensure that you’re eating the best food to help speed up your postoperative recovery.

#4) Get Plenty of (Light) Exercise When You Get the Green Light

Once you’ve been cleared for mobility after surgery, it’s crucial to incorporate light exercise into your daily schedule. 

Exercise helps you get into a positive daily routine, and the endorphins can also improve both moods and sleep patterns. While science shows that depression has a vital genetic factor, it also shows that exercise does positively influence depression and help prevent it. 

Not just that, exercise after surgery causes your body to release hormones that act as natural painkillers, which helps improve the effectiveness of the painkillers. It also makes the process of weaning off the drugs more accessible. 

Before embarking on any postoperative exercise regimen, it’s a good idea to get together with your doctor and get the specific exercises cleared before performing them. 

#5) Go Outside

It might be difficult for you to get up and move around after surgery, depending on what kind of surgery you have. Still, one of the most important reasons to get going as soon as possible is because it will help you have better access to the outdoors. 

Here are some of the reasons that going outside is essential for avoiding depression following surgery: 

  • It is scientifically proven to improve your mood to be outside. Being outdoors—especially in any verdant or green spaces—can not only lift you emotionally, but it can lift you physically, too. 
  • Being outdoors lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. These are both signs of reduced stress, allowing your body to heal effectively. 
  • It encourages physical activity. It’s hard to sit outside without wanting to go out and walk around in the outdoors, and most people who end up going outdoors end up engaging in at least light physical activity.
  • Going outside reduces stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety are also two primary emotional triggers that can cause a lapse into depression during recovery from a surgical procedure. Spending time outdoors has been shown to dramatically reduce anxiety and physical symptoms of stress. 
  • Not only does sunlight increase the body’s creation of self-made vitamin D, a crucial element for knitting broken bones and tissues in postoperative recovery, but sunlight itself has also been shown to act as a natural antibiotic

#6) Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Postoperative pain and discomfort can make sleeping difficult for some patients. However, having a strict sleeping routine after surgery can help ensure that the patient gets enough sleep for their body to heal correctly.

Sleep is essential for the healing process. 

Sleep is one of the prime opportunities for the body to heal and rebuild itself since it is the point when the body has to resort to the least amount of resources to keep you conscious and alert. 

While in a state of sleep, the body can relax and focus on subconscious processes, such as distributing hormones and DNA to reconstruct cells.

Getting enough sleep can help improve mood 

Getting the right amount of sleep helps lower your chances of having a depressive episode. 

Most people know that insomnia is a symptom of depression but fail to realize that hypersomnia or sleeping too much is also a symptom. So, getting the right amount of sleep is key to keeping your mental health in check when recovering from surgery. 

It may be tempting to oversleep or lay in bed all day, especially with the excuse of just having had surgery to back you up. However, it isn’t healthy for you in the long term. 

Postoperative pain can cause insomnia, which can induce stress and anxiety—and one of the most significant factors that negatively impact sleep after surgery is your pain levels. Increased pain that interferes with your ability to sleep through the night can negatively affect mood and recovery due to irritation from sleep deprivation. 

Practicing good sleep hygiene isn’t just a good idea after surgery, either—it can significantly increase your mood and overall health even when you’re not recovering from an operation.

Here are some tips you can follow to make sure that you are practicing good sleep hygiene to prevent depression after surgery: 

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. That means no sleeping in on the weekends or staying up for an all-nighter in the middle of the week. These kinds of habits disrupt your circadian rhythms and make it more difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep consistently.
  • If you don’t use an alarm for sleeping, consider using one. An alarm on your phone that is designed to both alert you when to head to bed and when to get up in the morning or an alarm clock can help keep you consistent with your sleep schedule. It’s less important how many hours you get than to make sure that you get them.
  • Consider keeping a sleep journal. It may seem unnecessary, but being observant about your dreams (or lack thereof) can help keep you more conscious of what is going on with your body in a postoperative state, which can help you feel more in control and improve your overall mood. A dream journal can also be used to track any sleep-related symptoms such as pain or insomnia for a doctor’s information during postoperative check-ups.
  • Use natural sleep supplements to improve relaxation and sleep after surgery. Rather than depending on pain pills, try to use more natural supplements to enhance your ability to sleep following surgery, such as melatonin and valerian root, to promote stress reduction and relaxation for healing.
  • Keep sheets changed frequently. You must maintain sterile conditions in your sleeping area after surgery to prevent a backslide in recovery caused by postoperative infection, which in turn can negatively impact your postoperative mood and trigger depression. Sleeping with super clean sheets and comfortable bedding can also improve your overall mood.
  • Take naps during the day if you need to, but do not take too many. You shouldn’t be sleeping for hours during the days after surgery, as this can prevent your system from recovering quickly. Your organs and digestive system will bounce back quicker from anesthesia if you stay awake. It is easy to fall into a bad habit of sleeping away the days after surgery, especially if you are in pain or are taking painkillers that make you tired, but this can lead to insomnia at night.

It’s easy to fall into bad sleeping habits after surgery that can trigger or worsen feelings of depression, so taking the reins and being proactive about good sleeping habits can help prevent mild lethargy and fatigue after surgery from developing into full-blown depression.

#7) Practice Healthy Pain Management

Chronic pain is a significant contributor to depression after surgery and can be attributed to many factors. In some cases, chronic pain is simply one of the drawbacks of surviving an otherwise complicated surgery. In others, chronic pain can be an unwanted complication that can significantly increase the risk of postoperative depression.

Luckily, you can manage your post-op pain in healthy ways, which can help reduce fear, anxiety, stress, and depression related to postoperative surgical pain.

Here are some of the things that a postoperative patient should take into consideration with regards to pain management and depression:

  • Take pain medication according to your doctor’s instructions. It can be tempting to pop a pill whenever you start feeling faint pain, but it’s important to note that painkillers can be highly addictive. These can cause other physical symptoms and emotional issues.
  • Learn natural pain management techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, and meditation. You can use these techniques along with your pain medication for a quicker recovery. 
  • Do not drink or smoke. While it might be temporarily comforting to indulge in nicotine and alcohol, especially to stave off post-op pain by distracting the mind with recreational substances, these substances can also hurt your body’s ability to heal itself, ultimately leading to longer recovery time and an increased risk of depression.
  • Track your pain and related activities daily. The act of tracking your pain and mood following surgery can help you feel more in control of your post-op status. This can increase your mood and help fight off feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and depression. 

The uncertainties of experiencing lingering pain after surgery—When will it get better? Will the pain ever end?—can significantly increase a patient’s levels of stress and can contribute to a feeling of postoperative depression. 

Being active in constructively attending pain management can help reduce these negative emotions.

Preventing Depression After Surgery Is About Self Care

It’s important to understand that your body has gone through significant trauma, even if you only underwent a routine procedure. You must give yourself some time and space to heal. 

Depression after surgery is common but avoidable if you prioritize and take care of yourself. You need to allow your mind and body the time to heal and recover. You can’t put a timeline on the process of healing. 

If you find yourself struggling after going under, it’s crucial to speak to a professional and seek help before it gets worse. Look out for the following symptoms: 

  • Low mood most days, nearly every day for two weeks. 
  • Difficulties in sleeping. 
  • Change in your eating habits. 
  • Loss of interest in things you found pleasurable before. 
  • Irritable mood. 
  • Lack of concentration. 

A therapist can provide you with a safe space to unfold and process your emotions while also giving you tools to deal with your problems. If you need help after surgery, it’s a good idea to book a session. 

Written by Kasia Ciszewski, LPC on

Kasia is a licensed professional counselor servicing the Charleston area. She helps individuals heal, better understand their emotions, energize & become more aware of their inner strength. She specializes in helping teens, adults and seniors and has been able to regularly achieve impressive results for her clients throughout South Carolina. Instagram - Facebook - Pinterest - Twitter - Linkedin

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