What Is Postoperative Depression? Why It Happens And How To Cope

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated July 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you schedule surgery, you may be prepared for the physical challenges you’ll experience as you recover. However, you might not be aware of the mental health concerns that can arise after a procedure, such as depression after surgery. 

Minor to intensive operations can lead to periods of inactivity, physical pain, and stress, which may cause or worsen symptoms like low mood, lack of motivation, and fatigue. If these feelings persist, you might be experiencing symptoms of postoperative depression. This mental health condition can significantly affect your emotional well-being and ability to move forward post-surgery, which is why being able to recognize the signs and then seek treatment can be essential. Here, we’ll discuss depression as one of the potential types of postoperative complications; an overview of this condition’s key symptoms and treatment methods will follow.

Struggling with depression after surgery?

What is postoperative depression? 

Postoperative depression is when symptoms of depression arise in a person after they undergo a surgical procedure. This condition is not listed officially in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), but depression is an official DSM-5 diagnosis and can have many potential triggers, including surgery. Postoperative depression is a documented phenomenon that can impact people of any age or gender.

Also called post-surgical depression, postoperative depression has similar signs and symptoms to major depressive disorder, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Changes in appetite and energy levels

  • Low mood 

  • Fatigue

  • A sense of hopelessness or despair

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities 

Depending on the type of surgery performed and any pre-existing mental health challenges, certain people may be more prone to specific depressive symptoms after a procedure. If you believe you’re living with post-surgery depression, a healthcare professional can provide an evaluation and treatment as needed. 

To learn more about this condition, you might consult Postoperative Complications: An Overview, a gathering of peer-reviewed studies and information about depression and other potential complications during the surgery recovery process.

What causes postoperative depression?

Scientists are still unsure of the exact causes of postoperative depression, but some potential risk factors include:

  • Pain or chronic pain following surgery

  • Unexpected postoperative complications

  • Changes in cognitive function after the operation 

  • A high amount of stress before, during, or after the procedure

  • Poor sleep and nutritional changes after surgery

  • A prior history of depression or other mental health challenges

Some peer-reviewed studies suggest that general anesthesia may also contribute to or put a person at higher risk of postoperative depression. Anesthetics are potent medications, and while they’re essential for many major surgeries, they may cause temporary mood alterations and other depression symptoms after a procedure.

Getty/MoMo Productions

Treatment for postoperative depression

Depression and postoperative depression are typically treated with psychotherapy, sometimes in combination with medication. A therapist can provide you with emotional support as you navigate the challenges of postoperative depression. They can guide you in identifying other sources of depressive symptoms, any comorbid mental health concerns, and coping strategies that may work for you as you move through this stage. You do not need to have a mental illness or diagnosis to talk to a therapist, and over 41.7 million US adults currently see such a provider, with the number rising every year. 

How to cope with postoperative depression

Depression and postoperative complications related to mental health can present unique challenges that other forms of depression may not, potentially preventing you from utilizing certain coping strategies. Still, there are several techniques you may incorporate into your everyday life as you recuperate from an operation. Your physician can help you determine which of the following methods best works with your plan. 

Prioritize rest

Rest can be a crucial aspect of recovery from surgery. It can also be vital to your ability to foster mental wellness. Sleep disruptions are common after an operation, and they can exacerbate depressive symptoms. Depending on your specific surgery and your doctor’s instructions, you may benefit from spending more time sleeping or resting at home. Whatever your situation, experts often recommend sticking to a regular sleep schedule of seven hours a night for adults. 

In the first few days or weeks after your surgery, your routine might become disjointed as you adjust to changes. However, as you regain physical strength, re-establishing your usual schedule—including your bedtime, waking routine, and mealtimes—can be important. According to peer-reviewed studies, a regular sleep schedule in particular may help decrease depressive symptoms and rebuild the energy and strength you need to recover fully from an operation.

Practice mindfulness

The association between mental and physical health is strong, and studies suggest that it may be a crucial part of your ability to recover from surgery. For example, findings from a 2017 study suggest that preoperative psychological health may influence physical healing in patients with surgical wounds. Mindfulness—a form of meditation focused on helping individuals foster a sense of presence—may be a helpful tool for mental health post-surgery.

Research suggests that mindfulness may decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and reduce pain—which may alleviate depression and contribute to the healing process following surgery. In a review of studies, researchers also indicate findings that suggest that mindfulness interventions can improve sleep, enhance physical function, and decrease depression symptoms in participants who have undergone a procedure. 

You can utilize a brief mindfulness exercise while sitting or lying down, making it a convenient practice when recovering from surgery. Consider the following steps:

  1. Focus on noticing your physical and emotional sensations and feelings without judgment while breathing deeply. Are you happy? Bored? Restless? In pain?

  2. Take note of your surroundings, focusing on the sensations they produce for you. 

  3. If you notice your thoughts drifting from the present, try to bring them back gently. If you notice pain, acknowledge it. 

  4. Focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale slowly.

Connect with your support system

Support from friends and family members can be crucial after surgery. Your loved ones may be able to provide you with emotional support as well as more tangible forms of care, such as cooking meals for you or completing your household chores. In addition to having someone help you with daily tasks, you may find it beneficial to have friends visit you throughout the week, particularly if you feel lonely or down at certain times.

If you don’t have a particularly large social support system, you might consider joining an online support group for people experiencing depression or people who have recently had surgery or health challenges. You might find that talking to people over a video call can be as meaningful as having someone in person to talk to. 

Note that a common symptom of depression is social withdrawal. However, trying to connect in some way nevertheless can be vital, even if you’re only texting or calling a friend. You might also try joining a group, calling a hotline, or talking to someone you haven’t contacted in a while. A mental health professional, like a therapist, can also be a significant resource for support. 

Practice self-care 

Some people who experience significant physical health challenges struggle to engage in basic care tasks, which can lead to worsening depressive symptoms and other complications. As you return to a more consistent routine, pay special attention to self-care, which can include any activity that nourishes your body and mind. Tending to personal hygiene, eating regular and nourishing meals, and engaging in activities you enjoy can help you show yourself compassion on the road to recovery. 

Stay active

While rest can be crucial as you recover from surgery, experts often recommend participating in physical activity to some degree after your doctor has given you the go-ahead. In addition to helping with recovery from surgery, exercise may help alleviate depressive symptoms. Physical activity can release mood-boosting endorphins and provide you with a distraction from complicated feelings related to your procedure, depression, or other concerns. 

Your physician can help you determine how much and what type of exercise may be safe and healthy for you given the type of surgery you underwent and your specific circumstances. Physical activity does not have to be high-impact to positively affect your mental health, and research suggests that even walking regularly may help improve or prevent anxiety and depression. Just be sure to seek medical advice from your doctor before engaging in any type of physical activity after surgery.

Struggling with depression after surgery?

Navigating postoperative depression with support

While meeting with a therapist can benefit those living with depression, it can be challenging or even impossible to attend in-person appointments when you’re in bed recovering or are unable to operate like you used to. If you’re living with mental health concerns following an operation, you might consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. 

With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a licensed mental health professional remotely. This format can be more convenient because its remote nature allows you to meet with a therapist from home. It’s also often more cost-effective than traditional therapy. 

In addition, a growing body of research suggests that online therapy can often be as effective as in-person treatment options in addressing mental health challenges like depression. For instance, the findings of a 2020 study suggest that an online therapy program led to significant reductions in depressive symptoms and a higher quality of life-based on a clinical trial of 460 participants. The study also notes that online therapy can be more affordable and convenient than in-person therapy and can be used to effectively treat other mental health challenges, like anxiety.


Your surgery might be over, but postoperative depression can add an unexpected element to your healing journey. However, with rest, self-care strategies, and the support of a healthcare professional, you may be able to recuperate while tending to your mental health. A therapist can be a guiding resource for you during this time, whether you find one online or in your area.
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