Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Depression After Surgery (Post-Op Depression)

Some statistics claim that as many as three-fourths of patients experience depression after bypass surgery. A small study published in the journal “Applied Nursing Research,” found that 65 percent of the patients were depressed three weeks after surgery and 26 percent continued to be depressed by 12 weeks.

Most people are aware of the high correlation between heart surgery and depression. However, not until my recent appendix surgery did I realize that there is a risk of depression after all types of operations. For several reasons:


the effects of anesthesia
antibiotics and other medications in your bloodstream
post-surgical traumatic stress syndrome
constipation and other digestive problems from the medications
a general disorientation

Add to that list, of course, soreness and pain, as well as orders to stay in bed for weeks (no cardiovascular activity), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I also think a person can be thrown into an unexpected depressive cycle because surgery, in effect, pulls the plug on the busyness that distracts us from some of our inner pain and humanness. Recovery demands a change of scenery (the bedroom, the couch, and the reclining chair) and a definite adjustment of pace that unravels us; forced quietness can be uncomfortable in that we can’t run from the things that aren’t quite right in our life: our lopsided work-life balance, our priorities, our lack of thoughtfulness and compassion.

At least that’s true for me. On some level, I knew I couldn’t continue at the pace I was, juggling about four and half jobs, and yet I didn’t know another way. So I’m taking this time to try and figure out a schedule that allows a better work-life balance.


The day I finished my antibiotics and Percocet I thought I was out of the woods. Ironically, though, hours after my post-operation appointment—when my surgeon reported that the incision was healing nicely—I grabbed the Kleenex box and began crying (I’m a bit better now). I somewhat expected this. I mean, so many of my tools (exercise, sleep hygiene, high protein foods, social interaction, work) don’t work for the next month or so. It’s a scary place … just waiting to heal completely so that you can go back to grabbing those tools.

I’ve had to come up with a different set of instruments for myself. Among them:

• Although I can’t swim in the morning or run around the picturesque Naval Academy, I can walk two blocks to the end of my street, sit down for awhile and look out at the water, and then walk back. That feels really lame even writing that. But hey, it’s better than nothing.


• Even though I do need more rest, and can’t stick to my strict sleep hygiene plan (in bed only from 9 pm to 5 am), I am going to continue to set the alarm and get up after eight hours. Even if I just read quietly in the morning, that is better than getting in the habit of sleeping too much, which I’m learning, is as powerful as a bad diet in putting me in a bad place.

• Even though I can’t immerse myself into community work during this time, I can make every effort to get dressed after eight hours of sleep, because staying in my jammies all day tells my brain to stay shut down.

• I can’t join friends at a social hour, but I can pick up the phone and talk to one, especially when I don’t feel like it.

• I can stay connected with friends and family via Facebook.


• I can vent to sisters, friends, and to Eric. I don’t have to pretend that everything is peachy. I can call my therapist if I need to, and email my doctor.

• I can continue to help people by posting quotes on Beyond Blue and passing along jokes that make me take life less seriously.

• I might not be up to salmon and spinach, but I don’t have to drink a case of Sprite either, or eat the whole box of crackers. I can still take my Omega 3 supplements, and stay away from the sweets as best I can.

Most importantly, I am ripping up my to-do list and starting over with a miniature one.

This is not easy for me to do as a people-pleaser.

For example, yesterday, I sat down to try to write thank-you letters to all the people who had graciously sent me flowers. That totally overwhelmed me, so I crossed it off for now. I can’t keep up with my email so I put a notice up that I’m away from my desk for awhile. And because Psych Central founder and editor-in-chief John Grohol is a kind and considerate man, I am able to take a leave of absence from my responsibilities at Psych Central for a month to recover. This is big progress for me … admitting to myself that I cannot juggle all my jobs while trying to heal from major surgery … that I’m fragile, much more fragile than I’d like to be.


I hope you don’t have to have surgery anytime soon; however, if you do wake up to some stitching either on your knee, abdomen, or chest, don’t be thrown by the blues that might accompany your operation. Make your own mini-list of the small things you can do while you recover, until you can walk farther than two blocks.

Image courtesy of Image: © Andrea Morini/Getty Images

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shelly

    This post really hit home! 2 years ago I was heading down the slippery slope into the worst depression ever. I had been diagnosed with bipolar 2 in mid September. Mid October I ‘lost’ it at work (parish office manager). My priest/boss suggested a month’s leave. So like a dutiful employee, I scheduled an elective surgery at the beginning of that leave along with beginning my mood stabilizer…I did not realize the effect that would have on my brain along with the anethesia along with my distorted thinking along with alcohol. 4 days later I went to an all day diocesan meeting followed by a business dinner with my husband’s work 2 hours away (WHAT WAS I THINKING?) I hurt so bad for a week!
    I could not fathom slowing down and letting my body heal. Two weeks into my time off, I started worrying about going back to work…
    no wonder when I finally resigned from my very stressful job with a very stress-producing boss2 months later, it took me 5 months to learn how to relax and not jump up in a panic every time I fell asleep. It took another year of intensive therapy learning CBT, relaxation techniques, how my family of origin contributed, devouring anything I could on bipolar/depression, and really knowing that this is a biologically based disorder to come to terms with how I am, how it is, and it’s all good. God is good, all the time!
    Thank you for continuing to share your life…everything…you give me hope and courage to be ‘real’ too.

    God Bless!

  • Elizabeth

    I can see where you would get depressed given your current situation. I always find it frustrating to be out of my “normal routine” no matter what. But then again, I’ve got OCD. So I can see where if I were in your situation, my anxiety would go up.

    Hang in there and I wish you a healing recovery,

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment chris

    Hang in there!

    Its good you are taking steps to allow and assist your body to heal.

    Oh and walking two blocks? That is great accomplishment considering they opened you up and took out a piece of your body! Just think of how the body heals…one cell at a time! You can’t go running with your innards connected by a little string of cells! gosh, wait until the cells reform into tissue! yikes!


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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jeanne

    Thank you so much for posting this. I had hip replacement last Monday, on Halloween, and got home Thurs. progressing nicely until tonight I get the biggest bout of the blues out of no where. Now just where the heck are all these teas coming from? So did a little Goggle search and found your experience. Now that I know I’m not alone, that I must cut my self some slack and take time to heal, I feel a little better. Know these feelings will return but now that I have a “name” for it it won’t be so scary!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment maureen evans

    So glad I found your words.I have just had a knee replacement, and although everything is healing well,I’m have suddenly been hit with an awful depression that I didn’t expect or even knew exsisted.I have no appetite and of course no energy.All I want to do is cry.Now I know that it can be part of the recovery I feel better able to cope with it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Peter

    Thank you for this important article. After being released from my surgery, I’ve become terribly depressed (unlike my usual self) and all the bullet-point reasons you cite we’re exactly my experience. Your article helps me understand what’s happening and that I can ride it out.

  • Pingback: Depression After Surgery (Post-Op Depression) – Beyond Blue « Earl's View

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment ange

    very useful article. can be a real problem, one one that you are not necessarily prepared for especially in the case of emergency or unplanned surgery.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment S. T

    Thank you for this article.
    I had a relatively straight forward (wisdom teeth plus extraction) operation and found that being relatively isolated and not able to do much a little depressing. It helps to know I’m not the only one.
    Thanks for sharing & best of luck for a quick recovery.
    Take care,

  • Sharlene Smith

    This little story helped me very much! It really sounds much like me, Ive been depressed after my hip replacement. I had to change everything…. The more knowledge and prayer I acquire the better I feel, mostly. Thank You

  • http://Thankyou Dee

    Thank you for your article. I am almost 12 weeks from an emergency laminectomy. While I believe it was a success I am suffering from Post operative stress disorder.
    I am doing everything I can think of to get better. I wonder if it would help it I went back to the surgeon and asked him why he threatened me minutes before the operation. Others have said they would have walked out. I was in so much pain I could not walk out so was wheeled in to the OR in fear for my life.

  • Corleen Gallinger

    Thank you…. I’m smart enough to know I am beyond blue… This helped. Tough ring far from ‘home’ post operative and feeling down.

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