My wife, Joelle, was scheduled for surgery to remove her right adrenal gland in three months, and she was terrified. "Every night I'd wake up and my heart would be racing," she recalls. "Fear would come over me. And panic."
It's a common reaction when facing a medical procedure. Some people are psychologically scarred by a past experience. Others fixate on the pain they might suffer, or like Joelle, on the helplessness of anesthesia. "I was afraid of not waking up or feeling really disoriented," she says. "It's that loss of control that's so scary."
If you're a stressed-out patient like my wife was, there's hope. You can take steps to face down your fears. Joelle did, and they made a dramatic difference. Her strategies:
Don't deny your fear
Sheila Messina, an R.N. who has had a dozen major surgeries, says it's helpful to recognize your anxiety and get your feelings out in the open. Stay connected with your friends and family. A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons shows that patients with a large support network feel less anxiety and pain prior to operations and have a quicker, smoother recovery.
Talk to your physician and to other patients. Joelle peppered her doctor, Christopher Ng, M.D., of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, with questions. His answers gave her a better idea of what to expect. Dr. Ng also put her in touch with patients who'd undergone the same operation. Talking to them "made me feel like I wasn't alone," Joelle says. "They survived—so could I."
Meet your anesthesiologist
Messina does this well ahead of an operation and is honest with the specialist about her fear, because it can affect her response to anesthesia. "We tend to become hypertensive when we are fearful, which can make recovery more complicated," she writes in her essay "Making Friends With Fear" in the journal Nutrition.
Practice daily relaxation in the weeks leading upto surgery
Joelle used the techniques in psychotherapist Peggy Huddleston's book and CD, "Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster." Huddleston recommends daily relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery (picturing positive images in your mind, like a tranquil scene on a lake or the face of a person who makes you happy). Once you get the hang of these techniques, you can use them in the hospital to bring inner peace.
Have a loved one keep you company before the operation
What's the best thing friends and family can do? "Just stay there with them, hold their hand, have them take deep breaths," says Cathy Smith, an R.N. for Fairview Southdale Hospital in Minnesota. "They might need to cry a little or talk about their fears."
Listen to music during pre-op
Research shows music reduces anxiety and blood pressure in hospital patients. It helps people focus on something other than their worries and the hospital noises around them, Smith notes. "Some even play music during their operation," she adds. "It brings them calmness and makes the heart rate slower, which is a good thing because it means less sedation may be needed." She says that ritual music, such as Tibetan chants, is particularly effective, but the important thing is to choose whatever makes you feel relaxed and uplifted. Joelle made a mix tape that included disco tunes, numbers from The Lion King and "slow songs we danced to at our wedding."
Bring a little piece of home to the hospital
Huddleston suggests taking along photos and other belongings that help you feel comforted, relaxed and secure. Joelle brought a special blanket and a photograph from our honeymoon in Yosemite.
All of the effort my wife put into learning what she could do to combat her fear about surgery paid off on the day of the operation. "I felt almost a calmness that morning," Joelle says. She came through the surgery with flying colors.