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

Updated September 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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

Even minor 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 postoperative depression, a mental health condition that can significantly affect your emotional well-being and ability to more forward from surgery. 

What is postoperative depression, why does it happen, and how do you cope with it? Below, we’re providing an overview of postoperative depression, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment methods.

Struggling With Depression After Surgery?

What Is Postoperative Depression?

Postoperative depression is a mental health condition that arises after a surgical procedure. Also called post-surgical depression, postoperative depression have many of the same symptoms as major depressive disorder, including: 

  • Changes in appetite and energy levels

  • Low mood 

  • Fatigue

  • A sense of hopelessness or despair

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed

Depending on the type of surgery performed and any pre-existing mental health challenges, certain people may be more prone to certain depressive symptoms after a procedure. If you believe you’re living with postoperative depression, a healthcare professional can provide you with screenings and determine whether further testing, a diagnosis, and treatment are necessary.  

What Causes Postoperative Depression?

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

  • Pain following surgery

  • 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 research suggests that general anesthesia may also contribute to postoperative depression. Anesthetics are powerful medications, and while they’re essential for many major surgeries, they may cause temporary mood alterations after a procedure.

Getty/MoMo Productions

Treatment For Postoperative Depression

Depression is typically treated with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both modalities. There are several different types of medication for depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants. Always consult with a healthcare professional prior to starting or stopping any medication. 

A therapist can provide you with emotional support as you navigate the challenges of postoperative depression. Additionally, they can help you identify any other sources of depressive symptoms, address comorbid mental health concerns, and develop coping strategies that will work for you. 

How To Cope With Postoperative Depression

Postoperative depression can present unique challenges that other forms of depression may not, potentially preventing you from utilizing certain coping strategies. Still, there are many techniques you can incorporate into your everyday life as you recuperate from an operation. Your physician can help you determine which of the following techniques will best fit into your recovery plan. 

Prioritize Rest

Rest is 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 need to spend more time sleeping or simply off your feet. Whatever your situation, experts typically recommend sticking to a regular sleep schedule. 

In the first few days (or weeks) after your surgery, your routine might become a bit disjointed; and at first, that’s OK. But as you regain physical strength, re–establishing your usual schedule—including your bedtime, waking routine, and mealtimes—can help you feel more like yourself. A regular sleep schedule can help you decrease depressive symptoms and rebuild the energy and strength you need to recover from an operation.

Practice Mindfulness

The association between your mental and physical health is powerful, and studies show that it may be an important part of your ability to recover from surgery. In a 2017 study, researchers found that preoperative psychological health influenced physical healing in patients with surgical wounds. Mindfulness—a form of meditation focused on helping individuals foster a sense of presence—can help you take advantage of the mind-body connection. 

Mindfulness has been shown to decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and reduce pain—benefits which may alleviate depression and contribute to the healing process following surgery. In a review of studies, researchers found that mindfulness interventions improved sleep, enhanced physical function, and decreased depression in participants who had undergone a procedure. 

You can utilize a brief mindfulness exercise while sitting or lying, making it a convenient practice when you’re recovering from surgery. While breathing deeply, bring your attention to your feelings, both physical and emotional. Are you happy? Bored? Restless? Take note of your surroundings, focusing on the sensations it’s producing. If you notice your thoughts drifting from the present, try to bring them back gently. This type of increased awareness can help you quiet your mind, relax, and better tap into the mind-body connection. 

Connect With Your Support System

Support from friends and family members can be crucial after surgery. Your loved ones can provide you with emotional support and more tangible forms of care (e.g., cooking meals for you, 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 start to feel lonely or down at certain times of the day.

Depression can make it hard to reach out and be social. It’s important to try to connect with your support system, though, even if you’re only texting or calling a friend. If you’d like to add to your support network, consider joining a support group. You may be able to find a group centered around depression or recovery from surgery. You can also include a mental health professional in your support system. 

Care For Yourself

Many people who experience significant physical health challenges struggle to engage in care tasks, which can lead to worsening depressive symptoms and other complications. As you return to a more consistent routine, you may want to pay special attention to self-care, which can include, essentially, anything 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 is important as you recover from surgery, most experts recommend participating in physical activity to some degree once you’re feeling up to it. In addition to helping with recovery from surgery, exercise can alleviate depressive symptoms. Physical activity can release mood-boosting endorphins, ease pain, and provide you with a distraction from difficult feelings related to your procedure, depression, or other concerns. 

Your physician can help you determine how much exercise is healthy given the type of surgery you underwent and your specific circumstances. Physical activity does not have to be high impact to positively impact your mental health—in fact, research suggests that simply walking regularly can improve or even prevent depression

Navigating Postoperative Depression With Online Therapy

A growing body of research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment options when addressing mental health challenges like postoperative depression. For instance, researchers in a 2020 study found 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 that it can effectively treat other mental health challenges, like anxiety.

If you’re living with mental health concerns following an operation, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a licensed mental health professional remotely, which can be convenient if you’re having trouble leaving home due to a surgical procedure. BetterHelp works with a team of therapists who have diverse areas of expertise, so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can provide guidance for your specific concerns and connect you with useful resources. Continue reading for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought help in the past. 

Therapist Reviews

“Kathleen is mindful and insightful. She actively listen to my worries and concerns and provides worksheets to help me with my issues.”

Struggling With Depression After Surgery?

“I’ve been talking with Rebecca since February and she has helped me immensely! A lot has changed in my life and she’s helped me create a positive mindset and space to navigate the changes and pursue the type of life and relationships I want. Along with this, she’s provided me with resources I can use outside our sessions.”


The surgery might be over, but postoperative depression can add an unexpected element to your healing journey. However, with plenty of rest, self-care strategies, and the support of a professional, you can recuperate while also tending to your mental health. An online therapist can also provide support as you address postoperative depression. With the guidance and support of a mental health provider, you can navigate the path to recovery and foster emotional wellness.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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