What Is Post-Operative Depression And What Might Help

Post-operative depression is something that many of us might never have thought about or considered because we’ve never had an operation. Even for those of us who have had an operation – we may never have discussed depression as part of the recovery process and it’s not usually something that’s included in the operation information booklets we are given.

What Is Post-Operative Depression And What Might Help

What Is Post-Operative Depression?

Post-operative depression is a type of depression that can occur after an operation. Operations can trigger symptoms of depression even if we’ve never experienced it, or any other diagnosable mental illness, before.

Why Does Post-Operative Depression Occur?

There are all sorts of operation-related things that could trigger, or contribute to, a depressive episode.

Operations are often designed to improve our health and give us a better quality of life. Unfortunately, they don’t always ‘cure’ us, and could make things worse. Coming to terms with the impact that an operation has had on our overall health and wellbeing can be difficult, especially if it doesn’t match the outcome we expected or hoped for.

We might be ‘out of action’ for a little while, or a long while, depending on our recovery period. This can impact our ability to earn money, look after our children, and engage with others socially. Having to rely on other people or sick pay/benefits can affect how we feel about ourselves and our usefulness. This can negatively impact our confidence and self-esteem.

Anaesthetic, painkillers, antibiotics, blood-clotters, blood-thinners, and transfusions may all have been involved in our operation and/or recovery at some point. There might be medications that we have to stay on for life. Each of us will react to these drugs differently, and unfortunately, for some people, the side effects of these medications can include low mood.

We might experience some pain, either temporarily or chronically. Being in pain isn’t nice and can negatively impact our mental health, especially if we’re struggling to control it.

Operations can prompt us to start thinking about our mortality. We might begin to feel hopeless as a result and to wonder what the point of life is.

Being unwell can be stressful. We could be stressed about money, our caring responsibilities and how we can manage them, how we’re going to manage at home, whether we will ever recover, the impact of our illness or diagnosis on those around us, and more. Stress can come at us from all angles, and it can leave us feeling down.

After an operation, our body needs time to heal. We might have to adapt to having limited mobility, increased fatigue, pain, and discomfort. We’ll probably have to attend numerous follow-up appointments. All these things can be draining and frustrating.

The aim of our operation may have been to confirm or deny a diagnosis. This means that as well as coping with the physical effects of surgery, we also have to cope with a new diagnosis, lack of diagnosis, a more serious illness than we thought, or an altered prognosis, potentially to the point where we discover that our condition is terminal. This can be a lot to cope with. All of these outcomes can bring difficult decisions. These results could mean that we’re facing months of different treatments and A vastly different quality, or quantity of life, from what we expected. Any of these things could prompt a downward turn in our mood.

For some of us, depression might not be a new thing. We could have been experiencing it before we had our operation, or may have experienced it earlier in our lives. The operation could cause our depression to re-occur, or make existing depression worse.

What Are The Symptoms Of Post-Operative Depression?

Many of the symptoms of post-operative depression are very similar to ‘regular’ depression. They can include, but aren’t limited to, loss of appetite, anxiety, hopelessness, lack of interest in things we used to enjoy, fatigue, sleeping a lot, irritability, memory loss, and difficulty making decisions.

However, uniquely to post-operative depression, some of these symptoms can be part of the recovery process. If our body has experienced a huge trauma, like an operation, then we are likely to need more sleep to give ourselves the chance to heal. The medications we take can impact how we feel physically, too. They might make us tired or dozy, or could mean that we constantly feel sick and/or have no appetite. It can be difficult to tease out what could be depression and what is part of our physical recovery or a side effect of the medication we’re on. It’s often helpful to try and tune in to how we feel emotionally. For example, if we’re always tired and never hungry but we’re feeling okay and are looking forward to being back on our feet, then it’s likely that we’re doing okay. But if we’re always tired, never hungry, feel hopeless, useless, and dread getting up each morning, then it could be worth talking to someone about how low our mood is and reaching out for some support.

Be Prepared

Having a clear plan of follow up appointments can help us to feel supported in the aftermath of our operation. Knowing who we’re seeing and when can help us to feel less alone and it can be reassuring to know that if depression does creep in then it won’t be long until we see someone who we can talk to about it.

A list of phone numbers for people we can call can be useful because we don’t then have to waste our limited energy scrabbling around for numbers. This doesn’t have to be limited to health professionals, it could include any family and close friends who we feel comfortable talking to.

Having an idea of likely recovery time can help us to be prepared. Everyone will recover at slightly different rates and there might be complications, but being aware of an average time can help us to prepare accordingly.

Monitor It

We all have rubbish days – days where we wonder why we bothered getting out of bed on a morning. When we’re in the process of recovering from an operation, these days might be more frequent. A few bad days doesn’t mean that we’re struggling with post-operative depression, but if these few bad days turn into weeks, then depression could be creeping in. Monitoring our mood can help us to identify if and when things begin to slip, which can then help us to do something about it.

Express It

It’s okay to feel rubbish. Sometimes our physical health is awful, and the news we’ve recently got is horrible and it’s more than understandable that we feel naff. We’re allowed to feel. It’s also okay to talk about or express these rubbish feelings.

We can chat about it with friends, family, and professionals. Writing about it, painting it out, screaming into a pillow, throwing cushions on the floor or crying at a tear-jerking film can all help us to express it.

Eat Well

Even if we have no appetite, it’s important to try and eat as well as possible. Eating well can aid our recovery as well as our mental health. Batching and freezing meals before we have our operation, can be helpful so that we don’t have to use our limited energy on cooking. There might be family or friends who can help us by bringing meals round for us. Utilising online shopping can help us to get regular fresh, healthy food in even if we’re struggling to leave the house. Eating well doesn’t mean existing solely on fruit and vegetables, it means incorporating all food groups (including fat!).

Change Your Clothes Daily

When we’ve had an operation, we’re not always up to much. Washing and dressing can be challenging, but it’s okay to reach out for help with it if we need it. If we’re struggling with dressing, it can easier for us to change from one set of pyjamas to another, rather than clothes, so that we only have to change once during the day. Having a wash, even a flannel wash, and changing our clothes can help us to feel so much more human. Basic self-care is often part of the foundations for managing our mood.


Routine can disappear when we’re unwell. We might not be able to attend work or school for a bit, so our usual routine can’t happen. Creating a new routine can help our mental health, even if our routine isn’t as rigid as it is when we’re well. It could be quite vague and comprise of getting up, taking our medication, going to bed, and having our meals at a similar time each day. Even a simple, loose, routine like that can help us to feel more ‘in control’.

Fresh Air

If we’re at home, we might be able to sit by an open window or just outside the door for a short while. For those of us who have to stay in a hospital or hospice, we could see if a visitor or member of staff can take us for a little bit of fresh air in a hospital garden or outside the front door. Breathing in some fresh air can help us to feel so much better.

Something To Do

Hospitals can be boring. Being stuck at home can be boring, too. There’s only so much daytime TV we can watch before we begin to feel fed up with life.

Having something to do can help to pass the time while our body heals. If we’re crafty then buying some supplies before our operation is always a good shout. For those of us who can concentrate, reading books or magazines can pass the time. Some of us might like puzzle books or jigsaws. If we don’t have any books or jigsaws to hand, we could utilise apps for e-books, games, and brain teasers.

If we’re going to be in hospital for a while, a phone charger can be essential. We’ll usually have access to a plug, and it’s amazing how much time we can spend mindlessly scrolling through different apps or watching things on YouTube or Catch Up sites.

Ask For Help

It is more than okay to ask for help. We don’t have to be ‘stoic’ or ‘just deal with it’. Coping with physical health problems on top of poor mental health is really difficult and it’s okay to find that hard to cope with. Whether it’s physical support or emotional support that we need, and whether it’s professional support or help from a friend or family member, it’s okay to ask for help. We deserve the support we need to help us recover from our operation, and any post-operative depression, and live a meaningful life.

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