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How to Cope With the Uncertainty of Surgery

Updated on November 27, 2012
Surgery saves and improves lives, but there is naturally a great deal of fear and uncertainty when facing an operation.
Surgery saves and improves lives, but there is naturally a great deal of fear and uncertainty when facing an operation. | Source

When facing surgery, a whirlwind of confusion often surrounds this serious event. There are so many potential worries that it is easy to become overwhelmed.

Dealing with the uncertainty of surgery only adds to the stress that is inherent in facing an operation.

There are ways to cope and reign in the fears you have about your upcoming surgery. Nothing will eliminate all of your worries, but identifying and facing them can go a long way to providing some peace surrounding these times.

Identify and Sort Your Fears Related to Surgery

Likely, even though you may not realize it at first, there are probably several things causing your uneasiness about your upcoming surgery. Most people have fears related to one or more of the following. Identifying and dealing with one at a time may help provide some calm.

*Fears about the diagnosis behind the surgery

*Uncertainty about the success of the surgery

*Concerns about pain and recovery

*Fear of anesthesia

*Fear of the surgical procedure itself

Which is, or would be, your biggest source of anxiety before surgery?

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Diagnosis-Related Fears

One of the most basic stressors related to surgery has to do with the reason you are having surgery in the first place.

Some people already have a diagnosis going into surgery and are apprehensive about possible surgical outcomes. It can also make you feel a bit defeated if you end up at surgery and that has been presented as your 'last resort'. It reminds you that there is something about you, about your health, that you couldn't fix. In this case, remind yourself that you have the option. Years ago, people would have no choice but to live with their condition. You are able to do something to regain your health. Trying to keep this perspective may make you feel better about your diagnosis.

Other patients are having surgery, such as a biopsy, to actually get a diagnosis. Obviously, waiting to find out whether or not you have cancer or some other serious condition is almost unbearably stressful.

Time is the only way to get answers to these questions and relieve this uncertainty. Remind yourself as you get closer to surgery that you are one step closer to an answer and one step closer to moving on. Every day that goes by is progress. Repeat this reminder when the anxiety starts to feel overwhelming.

Uncertainty about Success of Surgery

Having surgery is a big deal. You will get mind and body-altering drugs to numb part or all of you. You will allow someone that you trust only by virtue of their training and experience to make incisions and alter your body. You will arrange your work and family schedule to accommodate this procedure and the recovery.

No one would do this if they didn't believe that surgery would in some way improve the quality or quantity (or both) of their life. But, as any medical professional can and will tell you- there are no guarantees.

Even the most well-thought out and researched plan to have surgery still allows a little nagging doubt about whether it is the right choice. The idea that one would go through all of that and not be 'better' in the end, is difficult to deal with.

The best thing you can do for this fear is to do your homework. Try other, more conservative approaches first if available for your particular problem. Ask many questions of doctors and any other patients that you can find who had the same surgery. Do NOT rely on internet postings as they tend to be skewed by people who want to report their one-of-a-kind complication or issue without giving a 'big picture'. There is a lot of misinformation out there so be careful with these sources.

If you have researched your problem thoroughly and/or found doctors you truly trust to make recommendations and surgery seems like the best option, then have faith in your decision.

You may still worry about the success of the surgery, but the best position to be in is the one where you say to yourself "Even if the surgery doesn't work perfectly, I know I had to take the risk because I was out of other options and couldn't live with things the way they were".


Concerns about Pain and Recovery

Fear of being in pain and of having a rough recovery is one of the easier ones to address.

There will almost certainly be some discomfort or pain after surgery. This is to be expected after an operation. It is unrealistic to think otherwise. But, you also should not be in horrible pain. Pain medications are effective for most people for most kinds of surgery.

If you have specific fears or questions about how your pain will be managed, discuss this before your operation with your surgeon. Usually, the anesthesiologist will be in charge of the pain meds in the recovery room, and your surgeon will prescribe them during your hospital stay and your recovery at home.

Read your discharge and follow-up instructions carefully, and make sure a responsible adult also understands what care you will need in the postoperative period, as well.

Fear of Anesthesia

People don't always realize they are afraid of some aspect of anesthesia until their surgery is very near. It's sometimes an afterthought, but can become a major stressor for some patients. In addition, you don't usually talk to or meet your anesthesia provider until the day of surgery.

Anesthesia is another area where there seems to be more misinformation than good info on the Internet. If you want info, see your hospital's site and other reputable sites such as the American Society of Anesthesiologists. You can also read my many hubs on specific topics within the field of anesthesiology.

When patients learn the facts about anesthesia, they almost always become less anxious about it. Information is key to overcoming fear of the anesthetic. And if that doesn't work, the 'happy juice' we give you in the preoperative area should help.

Quick Look at an Operating Room

Fear about the Surgery

While some people are not bothered by the thought of having an operation, others are very visual and can't stand the thought of what will have to be done to get the procedure completed.

Do NOT watch YouTube videos about your procedure if you fall into this second category. Find your comfort level with the knowledge you need to have to make an informed decision. You must understand the procedure, how it is done and the risks involved, but you don't have to watch the surgery being done if you are going to be more harmed than helped by the visualization.

If, however, you are comforted by having as much information as possible, then use the resources at your disposal, just make sure they are reputable sources.

As usual, make sure you ask your surgeon any lingering questions before going to the operating room.

Take Control

My last bit of advice to cope with the uncertainty of surgery is to take control. There will be some things that you can't control, of course, but many factors are under your power.

*Be an informed consumer. Ask as many questions as needed to feel like you really understand your issue and the planned procedure.

*Prepare yourself physically for surgery. Knowing that you have done everything possible to make your surgery as safe as possible should help you feel more confident going into the operation. Maintain good nutrition, stop smoking, exercise, take your prescribed medicines to keep your medical problems under control... all the stuff doctors usually tell you is important to get yourself into the best shape possible for surgery.

*Prepare yourself mentally. In addition to addressing your fears one-by-one, practice meditation, yoga, deep breathing, visualization...anything that helps you relax. Practice these each time you feel panic or anxiety about surgery creeping up on you.


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    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      I try to avoid surgery at all costs I need to know it is essential for my continued presence on this planet before I succumb

      So far I have succeeded