More than 2.2 million surgeries were performed in Australia in 2017-2018.
Depression is not uncommon after surgery, or even after a diagnosis of a medical condition that would require surgery. Getting the news that your health isn’t perfect and you need surgery, the financial pressures of obtaining health care, and feeling physically unwell, can all trigger an episode of depression or make pre-existing depression worse.
Illness and/or Surgery Can Trigger Depressive Symptoms
It should come as no surprise that feeling bad emotionally and feeling bad physically often go hand in hand. The big problem is that many people don’t identify what they are feeling as depression—which can be treated in most people—and instead think that they are feeling the effects of their physical illness.
It can be challenging to differentiate between what happens during a typical recovery from surgery, and depression symptoms. In fact, many of the symptoms, such as fatigue and irritability, are common when an individual is depressed as well as during recovery from surgery.
Stress often triggers depression. The diagnosis of a condition, surgery and the changes that occur in your general routine can cause stress. It can be the uncertainty of what to expect, the uncertainty around the recovery process or the prognosis for a full recovery; the fears of how this condition and its treatment will affect your finances, employment, relationships and your lifestyle. Many people who experience post-surgery depression don’t expect it to happen. Doctors don’t always warn patients about it beforehand.
Recovering from surgery can take time and involve discomfort. It often leads to a disruption of your normal routine, lifestyle, or quality of life. We often experience some isolation from our regular social interactions during treatment or recovery. Social isolation is often a significant contributor towards depressed mood. You will also likely experience a significant decline in your physical activity post-surgery, which can further contribute towards depressed mood.
Depression is a complication that can happen after any type of surgery – whether it be heart surgery, knee surgery, back surgery or a hip replacement, and even plastic surgery. It is a serious condition that needs attention so that you can find the treatments that can help you cope.
Factors that can contribute towards post-surgery depression include:
- Having a pre-existing diagnosis of depression
- Fears around surgery, recovery and your own mortality
- Anxiety over possible complications
- Reactions to anaesthesia and pain medications
- Chronic pain
- Stress around whether life would return to “normal” (eg work, finances, social life, physical ability)
- Feelings of guilt about depending on others.
While certain surgeries may carry a higher risk of post-operative depression, it can appear after any surgery.
Symptoms of Post-Surgery Depression
Symptoms of post-surgery depression can be easy to miss because some of them can be similar to the after effects of the surgery.
- excessive sleeping or sleeping more often than normal
- irritability, agitation
- loss of interest in activities
- anxiety, stress, or hopelessness
- loss of appetite.
If depression appears immediately after surgery, this could be an effect of medication or anaesthesia. If symptoms continue for 2 weeks or longer, they may be a sign of depression.
Dealing with Post-Surgery Depression
Being informed about post-surgery depression and being able to identify your symptoms as such, already helps you to deal with it more effectively. Here are some steps you can take to address your symptoms and the underlying factors:
- Make an appointment to see your doctor if you think you may have post-surgery depression. They may be able to prescribe medications that won’t interfere with your post-operative care. They may also recommend a suitable mental health professional. If you’re considering taking natural supplements, ask your doctor whether they’re safe to take or if they could interfere with the medications you’re already using.
- Get outside and try connecting with your pre-surgery world. A change of scenery and a breath of fresh air may help manage some of the symptoms of depression. If surgery or a health condition affects your mobility, a friend, family member, or social care worker may be able to help you have a change of scene. You may need to check that there’s no risk of infection at the location you’re planning to visit, so check with your doctor about this risk beforehand.
- Set positive and realistic goals and celebrate your progress, however small. Goal setting can help you maintain a positive outlook. Focus on the long-term recovery instead of the frustration of not being where you want to be as fast as you’d like.
- Exercise as much as you can as soon as your doctor recommends it. Exercise might be part of your treatment plan. Your doctor or physical therapist will prescribe exercises specifically to help with your recovery.
- Follow a healthy diet to aid in your recovery and to prevent unnecessary weight gain due to inactivity.
- Preparing your home or support person(s) for recovery before you have the operation can reduce stress and anxiety.
How to help a Family Member with Post-Surgery Depression
It is really beneficial to know the signs and symptoms of post-operative depression, before your loved one undergoes surgery. Here are some ways of helping if you think they may be experiencing depression:
- Acknowledge and validate their feelings of sadness, grief, loss of motivation or their frustrations and pain
- Acknowledge their physical progress and recovery
- Encourage healthy habits and routines
- Help them meet their doctor’s recommendations for diet and exercise.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.