Body, Mind & Spirit

Body, Mind & Spirit

Mental Health Is an Important Part of Surgery Recovery

by MARY JOYE, LMHC

Modern medical surgical techniques have come a long way. Less invasive procedures call for less hospital time. However, our primitive healing responses set a pace that may be less than what we expect in this age of instant gratification. Much like the emotional grieving response, any serious life event takes time to process and to find balance, which is referred to as homeostasis. Homeostasis is achieved through incremental adjustments and time. Perhaps this is why we call those undergoing medical treatment, “patients.” You must be patient to heal properly.

It is difficult to be patient with our bodies when we want to get back into living our fullest life as quickly as possible. However, it is important to rest after any major surgery or traumatic life event and not to push yourself too far too fast. Your medical team will tell you what is the best course of action for physical recovery, and it is crucial for you to tell them how you feel, too. 

But what about mental health issues surrounding surgery? A 1989 article titled “Psychological Consequences of Surgery” by O’Hara et al, published through  PubMed.gov shares statistics about mental health aspects of surgery. In a study, 10.9% of people felt anticipatory anxiety before surgery, which is understandable. Depression, trauma symptoms, or anxiety were reported in 13.9% of patients in the three months following surgery. 

When we heal physically, we can visually note progress and understand the expected guidelines of the process. However, with mental issues, there are far more complex and individual differences that make recovery less predictable. Factors such as age, pain management, social support, financial means for proper care, and memory or cognitive impairment from anesthesia are components that may contribute to individual rates of recovery. Healing is not a one-size-fits-all process. 

It is important to discuss with your doctor what recovery may look like for you, not just physically but mentally. Pain can exacerbate anxiety and depression symptoms. If the surgery was invasive, sudden, serious, or with complications, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may develop. It is not necessarily true that time heals all wounds. Time can make the invisible wounds of mental health issues more serious and a quick recovery may be impaired. This month’s subject of breast cancer awareness is but one major surgery where mental health recovery may be more complicated and subjective.

If you or someone you know is having difficulty with surgical recovery and mental health issues, there are ways you can help. 

  1. Be compassionate and empathetic. 
  2. Do not judge where a person is mentally. Be patient with a patient, or yourself if you are the patient.
  3. Honor requests such as visitation desires or a wish for solitude.
  4. Do not compare one person’s surgery to another. Healing or trauma is not a competition. 
  5. Listen but do not offer unsolicited advice.
  6. Be cognizant of any negative effects of anesthesia and pain management.
  7. Allow yourself or others time to heal at a relaxed pace. 
  8. Medical advice should come only from physicians or a trusted team of providers. Resist interjecting medical or mental health opinions. 
  9. Respect the right to privacy. No one has to discuss or defend medical or mental health issues or their healing progress. 
  10. Discuss what the future will look like after recovery without putting pressure on the time or date. 

Healing is a deeply personal journey. Honor the sacred process and a person’s requests. This will be supportive and will increase mental wellness, which is always a necessary component of recovery. 

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