How to Prevent Depression After Surgery: 7 Expert Tips

Depressed young woman feeling sad and alone.
Depressed young woman feeling sad and alone.

Depressive states and feelings are common after surgery since they place a great deal of stress and uncertainty on the patient. Surgery can also negatively affect a patient’s self-worth if it affects their appearance in any way or prevents them from doing the things they did before surgery, such as tending the house or doing social activities.

Following a healthy post-op routine can help stave off the feelings of depression that can start to creep in on a person after surgery. Keep reading to learn more about how to manage depression and other emotional states following a serious medical procedure.

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 a necessity to 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. (Source: WebMD)

Here are some of the complications that can arise from not moving around enough after having
an operation:

  • Bedsores: Bedsores (also known as pressure ulcers) are the result of lying in bed in one position for long periods, causing skin lesions to develop from the pressure. For patients that are bed-ridden for a long time, it’s vital to turn patients regularly to prevent bedsores from occurring. Another way to prevent bedsores is to make sure that the patient’s bedsheets remain freshly washed.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: Deep vein thrombosis is a dangerous and insidious condition where blood clots can develop (typically in the legs) as a result of inactivity when blood is unable to pass through veins and vessels that have been constricted by the patient’s position. Once the patient moves again, these blood clots can break free and begin moving through the circulatory system, wreaking havoc. Left unchecked, a deep vein thrombosis can prove deadly.
  • Pulmonary embolism: Pulmonary embolism is one of the deadly complications that can arise from the result of a deep vein thrombosis caused by inactivity after surgery. A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot in the circulatory system becomes lodged in the lungs. Fast action is required to save a victim of pulmonary embolism, so recognizing the signs can potentially save a life. Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can include sudden shortness of breath, sudden chest pain, dizziness, coughing up blood, and an impending feeling of doom and apprehension. If someone suspects a pulmonary embolism, they should call an ambulance right away, as time is an essential aspect of treating a pulmonary embolism successfully without the patient dying. (Source: Cedars-Sinai Hospital)
  • Muscle atrophy: Muscle atrophy 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 a patient’s ability to do the things they enjoyed before surgery, which in turn can increase their chances of post-op depression.

It’s normal to feel woozy 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 make sure 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.

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 or period of convalescence. While some patients may be overwhelmed with visitors attempting to see them after their surgery, others may have friends and family members who are hanging back to give the surgical patient some much-needed breathing room for rest and recovery.

Once you’ve recovered to a point, however, it’s important to reach out and touch base with the people that care about you. Not only does this give other people the chance to validate your social worth and ask you what kind of things you need to recover, but it can also give you something to do during the recovery period.

There are many good reasons for a person to reach out to friends and family after surgery, especially if they are feeling any feelings of impending depression. Here are some of them:

  • Emotional and physical support. Not only can friends and family help mitigate any negative feelings or emotions you might be dealing with in the wake of a surgery, but they can also help take some of the physical pressure off of you during your recovery by offering to fix and bring over meals, mow your lawn, or perform other duties that may be too strenuous for you to take on at your current point in recovery.
  • Knowledge of your circumstances. Offloading your feelings of anxiety or depression onto a friend or family member is seeking advice and understanding from someone who already has an intimate knowledge of your situation. This can be preferable to explaining your situation to a third-party therapist or counselor if you’re feeling some depressive emotions post-op.
  • 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.
  • It can be somewhat dangerous for a person to be left alone in the wake of major surgery due to the threat of complications—physical, mental, and emotional. Not only can having a companion help the patient avoid those complications, but it can also help them get treated in a timely fashion if they do crop up. Sometimes a companion is more readily able to recognize the signs of depression in a patient than the patient can.

It’s a good idea before going into surgery to get some kind of 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 post-operative surgeries. (Source: BMC Psychiatry)

Eat a Healthy Diet

It might not seem that crucial, but eating healthy food after surgery is one of the most important ways you can contribute to a successful healing process as a post-operative patient. You might be drawn to comfort food while you’re convalescing, but dense, fattening foods with little nutritional value are not the kinds of foods that will help you heal.

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

  • Eating healthy prevents stress on the digestive system. Your body after surgery is already going to be having to dedicate a lot of energy to the healing process, and you don’t want to divert any of that energy into unnecessary jobs like processing junk food or trying to filter out toxins like alcohol and nicotine.
  • Eating healthy prevents an 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 huge no-no after a surgical procedure when all attempts are being made to reduce inflammation.
    (Source: Healthline)
  • Eating healthy prevents post-operative 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 the patient’s self-worth.Some weight gain after surgery (especially abdominal surgery) is typical and is related to post-operative water retention rather than accumulated fat. This water typically absorbs back into the body over several days. (Source: Real Self)
  • 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, and the additional time needed to heal without proper nutrition can lead to other post-operative complications like infections.

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 post-operative recovery.

Get Plenty of (Light) Exercise

Once you’ve been cleared for mobility after surgery, it’s vital to incorporate light exercise into your daily schedule. Exercise helps get a post-operative patient into a positive daily routine, and the associated endorphins can also improve both moods and sleep patterns. While science has shown that depression has a strong genetic factor, it’s also shown that exercise does positively influence depression and help prevent it. (Source: TIME Magazine)

Another significant benefit of exercise after surgery is that it causes the release of hormones that act as natural painkillers, helping to extend the effectiveness of the patient’s chemical painkillers and reducing their dependence on them. Exercise has been shown to provide significant pain management for a majority of chronic pain patients. (Source: Cochrane Library)

Before embarking on any post-operative exercise regimen, it’s a good idea to get together with your doctor and get the specific exercises cleared before performing them. Different kinds of operations leave people with different physical weaknesses following surgery, so you should touch base with a physician and determine which sorts of exercises might be too strenuous for your current level of recovery.

After surgery, consistency in exercise is more important than intensity to avoid becoming sedentary and sore, so even if the only exercise you can manage is walking through the neighborhood, it’s still a better option than being bed-ridden if you’re trying to avoid succumbing to depression after surgery.

You should work your way up to more strenuous exercise as your body begins to heal. It’s important not to overdo things at first so that you don’t accidentally set yourself back in physical recovery. A setback in recovery caused by overdoing things can be a trigger for a depressive episode after surgery. It’s better to take things nice and slow so that you don’t try to do too much all at once.

Go Outside

It might be difficult for you to get up and move around after surgery, depending on what kind of surgery you have, but one of the most important reasons to get going as soon as you can is because it will help you to have better access to the outdoors. There’s a reason that, before the advent of modern medicine, one of the most prominent treatments available for patients was to “take the air” or go on retreat in natural surroundings.

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 up emotionally, but it can lift you up
    physically, too. (Source: TIME Magazine)
  • Being outdoors lowers your blood pressure and heart. These are both signs of reduced stress, and when your body isn’t stressing out, it’s able to heal itself much more easily than if it is in fight-or-flight mode.
  • It encourages physical activity. It’s hard to just 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. Since light physical activity also helps stave off depression in post-operative patients, going outside is usually a win-win situation.
  • 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. In their post-operative recovery, patients should do anything they can to avoid anxiety-inducing environments and situations. Going outside has been shown to reduce anxiety and physical symptoms of stress dramatically. (Source: Harvard University)
  • Sunshine works as a natural antibiotic. Not only does sunlight increase the body’s creation of self-made vitamin D, a crucial element for knitting broken bones and tissues in post-operative recovery, but sunlight itself has also been shown to act as a natural antibiotic. Even if a post-operative patient is too ill to go outdoors right after surgery, just bathing the patient’s bed chambers in natural sunlight can help speed the recovery process by fending off germs. (Source: NPR)

Having a speedy recovery after surgery and preventing a bout of post-operative depression doesn’t just mean taking it easy—it also means proactively putting yourself in environments that have a healing effect on both the body and the mind. You also must recognize how much your emotional and mental well-being reflects on your physical healing process.

It’s essential to take control of your recovery after surgery to avoid the pitfalls of medical complications. Making a point to go out and sunbathe every day after surgery can have powerful positive effects on a patient’s recovery time and how comfortable it is.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Post-operative 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 itself properly.

Here are some of the reasons that practicing good sleep hygiene after surgery is so necessary:

  • 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 in the day 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 for the reconstruction of cells.
  • Getting enough sleep (and not too much of it) can help improve mood and decrease the likelihood of a depressive episode. If you feel the beginnings of depression beginning to slip in, it is tempting to oversleep or lay in bed all day, especially with the excuse of just having had surgery to back you up. However, over-indulging in sleep can cause just as many problems as not getting enough. Too much sleep can contribute to depression. (Source: Psychology Today)
  • Post-operative pain can cause insomnia, which can induce stress and anxiety—and one of the most significant factors that negatively impact sleep after surgery is a patient’s pain levels. Increased pain levels that interfere with the patient’s ability to sleep through the night can negatively affect both mood and recovery due to irritation from sleep deprivation. Cognitive therapy can help patients work through insomnia to reduce related stress and anxiety. (Source: ADAA)

(Source: Chicago Tribune)

Practicing good sleep hygiene isn’t just a good idea after surgery, either—it can greatly 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 as well as 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 it is 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 post-operative 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 post-operative 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 improve 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 post-operative infection, which in turn can negatively impact your post-operative 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 drowsy, 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.

Practice Healthy Pain Management

Chronic pain is one of the worst contributors to depression after surgery and can be attributed to a variety of different 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 post-operative depression.

Luckily, pain can be managed in healthy ways after surgery that can make a patient less likely to succumb to feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, and depression related to post-operative surgical pain.

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

  • Pain medication should be taken according to a doctor’s instructions. Overtaking painkillers after surgery can lead to symptoms of withdrawal when the medication runs out, and symptoms of withdrawal can, in turn, lead to high levels of stress and decreased mood. A patient should also wean themselves off highly addictive painkillers as soon as they are physically able to manage without them.
  • Learn natural pain management techniques, such as deep breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation. These techniques can be used in correlation with more traditional medicinal solutions for pain management to help decrease the necessity for chemical painkillers.
  • Do not drink and smoke. While it might be temporarily comforting to indulge in nicotine and alcohol, especially to stave off post-operative pain by distracting the mind with recreational substances, these substances can also hurt the body’s ability to heal itself, ultimately leading to longer recovery time and an increased risk of post-operative 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-operative status, which can increase your mood and help fight off feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and depression. Tracking pain management can also be an excellent way for your doctor to observe the duration of your chemical dependence on painkillers after surgery.

The uncertainties of experiencing lingering pain after surgery—When is it going to get better? Will the pain ever end?—can greatly increase a patient’s levels of stress and can contribute to a feeling of post-operative depression. Being active in constructively attending pain management can help mitigate these negative emotions. (Source: WebMD)

Preventing Depression After Surgery Is About Self Care

Many of the things that cause a patient to fall into a depressive state after having major surgery are related to them not adequately taking care of themselves. Making sure that you get enough sleep, proper pain management, and a healthy diet can make a huge difference in how quickly you recover both physically and emotionally from major surgery.

About Kasia Ciszewski 46 Articles
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.

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