Reston Hospital Center - January 19, 2018

What are you afraid of? Surgical fears rank high with adults—leading to stress and avoidance. Here are 5 things you need to know to deal with it.

Being Nervous Is Common

Most people feel some uncertainty before surgery. That’s natural and even expected. When the feelings go beyond a simple case of nerves, it’s called surgical anxiety. There’s even a medical term for it: tomophobia. In extreme cases, medical fears prevent necessary or regular health care.

Top Surgical Fears

Not only do we all get nervous about surgery, but we’re nervous about the same things. The top fears include:

  • Death
  • Pain
  • Loss of control
  • Surgical results
  • Financial impact
  • Lifestyle impact
  • Waking up during surgery
  • Surgical mistakes
  • Scars or other disfigurement
  • Needles and other medical equipment

Symptoms of Surgical Anxiety

While surgical anxiety is very common, the symptoms are unpleasant and can disrupt life before surgery, leaving you unable to relax and increasing stress. That level of anxiety can actually carry over, impacting your recovery and how you experience pain.

Even if you don’t have one distinct fear, you may experience symptoms of surgical anxiety.

Symptoms of surgical anxiety include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or nervous stomach
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems sleeping

Anxiety can be a vicious cycle as stress and physical symptoms cause sleeplessness, which in turn makes the anxiety worse. Keep reading for tips to manage anxiety—and when to get help.

Calm Thyself

Many fears can be alleviated or lessened simply by seeking information. Learn about your illness, surgery, and expected recovery. Ask questions at appointments, pre-op testing, and registration. Your doctor and anesthesiologist are good sources for factual information.

Tips to lessen anxiety include:

  • Carefully read and follow all pre-surgery instructions
  • Increase your overall calm in the weeks ahead of surgery with yoga, massage, meditation, acupuncture, or other enjoyable activities
  • Prepare your body for surgery. Focus on eating healthy, getting rest, and staying active
  • Day of surgery: listen to music, read an exciting book, or even cuddle your pet before heading to the hospital – all are proven stress reducers

Share your Fear

When 45-year-old Kristin needed ACL reconstruction surgery, she worried about the pain involved. Watching a video of the procedure only increased her anxiety. She finally admitted her fears to her anesthesiologist, but only after he discovered her hyperventilating in a changing room. “He immediately reassured me that I would not wake up in pain,” said Kristin. “He also gave me medication right away that made me relax. Instead of fleeing, I felt like I could take a nap.”

It’s essential to seek help for severe anxiety, particularly when fear causes you to consider canceling or postponing surgery, or when anxiety makes it impossible to carry on with your normal life. Talk to your surgeon, ask for support from family and friends, or find a support group for surgery or for your specific illness. Sharing your fear can be a relief and talking to others can be immensely beneficial.

If your anxiety persists even after learning about your procedure and rallying support, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication and refer you to counseling. In cases where surgery can have a major impact, such as the removal of a breast or the potential loss of sight, counseling can help you cope with the changes. Most therapists can provide exercises that help control anxiety and the physical symptoms.

No matter how you decide to manage, don't let stress or fear stop you from getting any necessary medical procedures.