Post-Surgery Panic, Fear, and Anger

Surgery - November 30, 2016

Many years ago I had surgery, a reduction mammoplasty. This was a procedure that I very much wanted to have for many years and I was very excited to have it done. However, the first time I looked at myself in the mirror after the procedure I was overcome with panic and fear. My body looked so different that I hardly recognized myself and I was afraid I had made a huge mistake. This is not an uncommon experience for people who have just had surgery, particularly when it is a surgery that alters your appearance in some way. Even when the surgery is something that you want to have done, the shock of the change can be upsetting. The emotions that can arise might be confusing because it can be so unexpected.

I think it's important for the patient and caretakers to know that it's not uncommon for patients to experience anxiety, panic, or fear post-surgery. Many of my clients experience stress and anxiety after surgery. More than once I have sat with a client for long periods of time holding their hand and reassuring them that they will be ok. As long as the patient isn't exhibiting signs of medical distress such as fever, throwing up, bleeding, excessive pain, inability to eat or walk or use the bathroom, or any other symptoms of concern listed on their discharge paperwork, then I just focus on soothing the patient. Because I have seen this happen many times to patients in recovery and have experienced it myself, I don't worry when this happens. I just focus on finding ways to comfort and soothe the patient as they process the emotions. This may involve providing distractions or helping the patient focus on their breathing or just allowing the patient to express their emotions until they feel better. Allowing these complex emotions to process can be an important part of healing.

When you are the patient remember that how you look immediately after surgery is very likely not how you will look forever. There is nearly always swelling and healing that will need to happen before you will know the final result. Also, it can be some time before the healing is complete. Depending on the surgery it can take six months to a year before you will be fully healed and have your final result. Of course, it can be easy to forget this when you are just out of surgery and eager to see the results. You may find it helpful to have a friend, relative, or caretaker with you when you first look in the mirror so they can remind you of what the doctors and nurses have told you to expect and to give you more objective feedback. The patient may be too anxious or emotional to see the results with a completely objective eye. A supportive person by your side can be very helpful during that first look at the results.

If you are very concerned about how you look after your surgery do not hesitate to contact your surgeon or the nursing staff and ask if your results are unexpected. Get reassurance directly from the professionals who know what to expect in the recovery process. If you are finding that even with reassurances from trusted people in your life and the medical professionals you are still feeling anxious, ask your doctor if it is appropriate for him/her to prescribe you some anti-anxiety medication. Sometimes this can be helpful to allow the patient to rest and relax which helps the physical healing process. Some surgeons I know automatically prescribe anti-anxiety medications for patients to have on hand post-surgery in case they start to experience extreme anxiety in the days immediately following surgery. Don't be shy about speaking up with the medical professionals and asking for the support and information you need to feel better emotionally.

We often focus exclusively on the physical and medical aspects of surgery and recovery. It's important to realize that mental well being can also be a critical part of the speedy and healthy recovery.