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

Updated March 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you schedule a surgery, the hardest part is the procedure itself – right? 

Well, it depends. After surgery, you might expect the hard part to be over; but any medical procedure can take a significant toll on your mind and body. Regardless of the procedure, recovery takes time – and in some cases, you might notice that you’re feeling more down than usual. 

If these feelings persist and begin to get in the way of a successful recovery, you may be diagnosed with postoperative depression: a phenomenon that may be far more common than you think. 

What is postoperative depression, why does it happen, and how do you cope with these feelings while recovering from surgery? A licensed doctor is the best resource for these questions, but we’ll cover the key details so that you feel prepared for your next procedure.

Struggling With Depression After Surgery?

What Is Postoperative Depression?

As you might expect, postoperative depression, also called post-surgical depression, is a form of depression that occurs after a surgical operation. It shares many of the same symptoms as major depressive disorder, including: 

  • Changes in appetite and energy levels

  • Mood changes, such as apathy or irritability 

  • Extreme fatigue

  • A sense of hopelessness or despair

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Disinterest in activities you’d normally enjoy 

Depending on the type of surgery and your overall health, you may be more prone to these feelings after the procedure. However, post-operative depression can exacerbate the tiredness, appetite changes, and other obstacles you may encounter along the path to recovery.

What Causes Postoperative Depression?

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

  • Experiencing a high amount of stress leading up to the procedure.

  • Poor sleep and nutrition after the procedure.

  • A prior history of depression and other mental health challenges, which can affect your physical and emotional recovery.

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 patients wake up from the procedure.

Collectively, these factors can make it difficult to focus your energy on recovering from surgery. Surgery can be a demanding, even life-changing ordeal, and it’s not unusual to experience major emotions alongside the physical changes of a surgical procedure. 

How To Cope With Postoperative Depression

Part of the process of recovering from postoperative depression is simply acknowledging the condition as a real, valid experience. Initially, you may attribute your feelings and fatigue to the procedure itself; but it’s crucial to recognize that surgery often affects people both emotionally and physically. 

You deserve support for your symptoms, and there are several strategies to support your physical and mental recovery.

1. Prioritize Rest.

Now more than ever, your body needs rest. 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, it’s usually advisable to stick to a regular sleep schedule and routine. 

In the first few days (or weeks) after your surgery, your routine might become a bit disjointed – and at first, that’s okay! 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. Ultimately, the goal is to rebuild the energy and momentum you need to get through the day.

2. Honor The Mind-Body Connection. 

The mind-body connection is powerful, and may be even more noticeable in the aftermath of surgery. A 2017 study found that preoperative psychological health actually influenced physical healing: based on a sample of patients with surgical wounds, those with moderate depression or anxiety were more likely to experience complications and be readmitted to the hospital. 

Before and after your surgery, you can tap into this mind-body connection to enhance the healing process. To do this, try incorporating any of these mindfulness practices into your recovery plan, as well as your daily routine: 

  • Yoga and gentle stretching, which encourage you to slow down and notice how your breathing and thought patterns affect your body

  • Meditation, which can help clear your mind and learn to “just be” in the present moment 

  • Listening to music, journaling, and drawing can also encourage mindfulness. These creative exercises can calm your mind and open up a “window” of silence and reflection.

  • Spending time outdoors and noticing how the fresh air and sunlight feel on your skin

Whether you’re healing from surgery or navigating the stressors of daily life, any of these activities can become foundations of your long-term self-care plan. As you recover from surgery, you may even discover new interests and hobbies that sustain your mental health, long after you leave the recovery room.

3. Tap Into Your Support System. 

Physically and emotionally, you may need more support from friends and loved ones after surgery. In addition to someone to help you with daily tasks, you may find it beneficial to ask friends to visit you throughout the week, particularly if you start to feel especially lonely, depressed, or otherwise down at certain times of the day.

Even when friends can’t visit, most people are only a phone call or text away. Before the surgery, it may help to create a calendar for visits, phone calls, and even meal drop-offs. 

If you feel uncomfortable asking for this extra support, just remember: would you do the same for a friend or loved one in need? Most likely, the answer is “yes” – and in most cases, your loved ones are more than willing to provide the extra care, love, and connection you need to recover. 

4. Focus On The Basics.

As you return to a more consistent routine, you may want to pay special attention to basic acts of self-care. While they’re foundations of healthy living, these acts can be easy to dismiss in the early stages of recovery.

Changing your clothes, eating regular and nourishing meals, and brushing your teeth are all basic actions, but they can also help you feel human. After surgery, you may not feel like your best or most radiant self, but you still deserve to feel clean and comfortable in your body. 

5. Communicate With Your Doctor.

While this article can offer a general overview of post-operative depression, we can’t replace the expertise of your surgeon and primary care doctor. 

If you’re experiencing depression after surgery, it’s important to communicate your concerns to your doctor. They’ve likely worked with other surgical patients with similar symptoms and can guide you through recovery with personalized wisdom. 

In addition to your physical recovery, your doctor can also help you recognize the emotional impact of surgery. Naturally, surgery is an invasive and vulnerable process, and the healing process may take more time than you expect. This can be frustrating and overwhelming, especially if you’re eager to return to “normal life.” 

Both before and after the surgery, it’s crucial to communicate these concerns and feelings to your doctor, who can help you feel prepared, supported, and informed about what will happen to your body during surgery. 

6. Talk To A Therapist.

To supplement the physical care of your doctor, a therapist can help you navigate the emotional side of recovery.

While you might be more familiar with in-person therapy, online therapy is an increasingly popular option, especially if you’re not able to commute or drive after surgery. Online platforms like BetterHelp make it easy to connect with board-certified mental health professionals. Within 48 hours of completing a brief online questionnaire, you’ll be matched with a therapist based on your mental health needs and goals. All BetterHelp therapists have at least three years of professional experience and understand the connection between your physical and mental well-being.

A growing body of research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face options. For instance, a 2020 study found that an online mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program led to significant reductions in depressive symptoms and a higher quality of life, based on a clinical trial of 460 participants. The researchers additionally noted that online therapies can be more affordable and accessible than traditional therapy, and can effectively treat anxiety and other mental health concerns.

Counselor 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 chapter to your recovery journey.

But with plenty of rest, self-care strategies, and the support of your medical team, you can make a full recovery from your procedure: both physically and mentally.

An online therapist can play a critical role in your recovery. Therapists are trained to use the mind-body connection to your benefit and can help you understand how your emotions influence your physical health. 

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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