Dealing With Pre- and Post-Surgery Anxiety: 5 Ways Process and Cope with Surgical Stress
by Anna Nathanson
It’s common for medical procedures to provoke anxiety. There’s often a feeling that you have no control over the outcome, aren’t clear on the specifics of the treatment, or don’t have time or space to process. This can make the experience all the more daunting.
As overwhelming as it may feel going into surgery, there are ways to make the overall experience more manageable. To learn more about coping with surgery anxiety, we spoke to Dr. Julie Simon, a psychologist in Massachusetts who specializes in working with individuals who have been touched by a medical illness or issue in some way.
Here are Dr. Simon’s tips to dealing with pre- and post-medical surgery anxiety:
1. Know that it’s normal to worry
It’s human nature to want to be in control, and feeling anything but can trigger anxiety. Rest assured that this is natural. “It is common to worry about how the procedure will go, whether there will be pain, and what the recovery will be like,” say Dr. Simon.
Fear of the uncertain can summon different worries for different people – some people are more concerned with not being in control of their minds and bodies while under anesthesia and in the hospital, while others are more concerned about the procedure outcome and the unknowns around recovery.
Either way, appreciate that you are not alone, and your concern is natural.
2. Talk it through with your support system
Talking about your anxieties or fears can help you feel less alone. Discussing with a trusted loved one or a trained therapist can help you process some of your concerns, and may help alleviate some of the anxiety.
3. Take time to take care of yourself
Before the procedure, self-care is essential, says Dr. Simon. Distracting yourself with activities you know make you feel good can help you relax in the days leading up to the procedure.
She suggests taking a relaxing bath, starting a new book, listening to soothing music, or completing a mindfulness meditation. It can help to invoke a calmer time with relaxing and soothing activities.
Gentle movement is also helpful, and she often recommends that her clients take part in restorative yoga or stretching.
4. Find accurate information
Many people are curious about the details of the procedure and find it comforting to know exactly what to expect.
If you expect that more information will help comfort you, Dr. Simon encourages you to ask your doctor where to look for accurate information. “I’d discourage just Googling it yourself, as the internet is full of all kinds of information, and it can be difficult to distinguish between what is accurate and helpful and what is inaccurate and potentially harmful,” she warns.
5. Honor your individual healing process
After the procedure, avoid comparing yourself to others, advises Dr. Simon. “Your recovery is your own, and comparing yourself to someone you know who has had the same procedure or others you’ve read or heard about can be really discouraging, and sometimes anxiety provoking.”
Your body will go at its own pace, under your doctor’s care – and it can be frustrating to expect someone else’s results. Remind yourself that recovery is a journey that’s not always linear; ups and downs are part of the healing process.
6. Speak with a therapist
If you’re really struggling with anxiety pre- or post-procedure, Dr. Simon suggests talking to a therapist who can help you make sense of your feelings and ultimately find comfort from the anxiety.
When looking for a therapist, look for a therapist who either has a specialty in chronic/medical illness, or an anxiety specialty like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).
Talking with a therapist prior to an operation can help you develop coping skills to prepare yourself for surgery, as well as learn how to gain trust in your medical team. After the surgery, you can also return to therapy to discuss your healing process, and learn skills and mechanisms like guided imagery and other beneficial skills to make your journey to recovery a swifter, more pleasant one.
Anna Nathanson is a current master's in social work student at NYU. She is interested in providing mental healthcare to those who might not have access to it otherwise, and is passionate about racial justice, tenant rights, and demystifying therapy.