Elective surgery booked? Here’s how to look after your mental health


3 minutes

21 June 2023

Feeling stressed about an upcoming surgery is a completely normal reaction. But with some studies showing reducing psychological stress may improve healing outcomes1, it could be beneficial to invest some time in finding the de-stress strategies that work best for you.

In this article

Managing anxiety in the lead-up to surgery

Dr. Lillian Nejad, Clinical Psychologist, says anxiety is our body’s way of getting ready to protect us from harm, often called the fight-flight response.

Surgery, whether elective or not, carries some risk and is a situation in which you have no control—so it makes perfect sense to feel anxious,” she says.

Dr. Nejad lists some of the common reactions you may experience as including:

  • tense muscles
  • upset stomach
  • difficulty sleeping
  • having thoughts including, “I can’t cope” or “what if…”
  • unhelpful coping behaviours like drinking or smoking.⁠

Here are some of the ways she recommends you work on your worries in the lead-up to elective surgery.  

  1. Progressive muscle relaxation

    This involves systematically tensing and relaxing the muscles throughout your body, leaving you feeling deeply relaxed.

    ⁠“Relaxation exercises can slow down your racing thoughts, can help you distract from rumination and overanalysing, and can instil a sense of confidence in your ability to cope in challenging situations,” says Dr. Nejad.

    Related: A stress-melting body scan with Megan Sanderson

  2. Visualisation techniques

    Picture yourself in a calm and safe place. “Visualising how you will feel after the surgery can also help you shift your focus from worrying about what negative things might happen, to the positive reasons why you have elected to do a procedure,” she says.

  3. Spend time outdoors or turn to your comforts

    Nature is not only shown to reduce stress, but it can also improve your mental and physical health. Pair this with a walk to add some feel-good endorphins to the mix.

    If a walk isn’t an option, consider watching old movies or TV shows, or rereading books that bring you joy.

    Turning to old faves can relieve stress by giving you comfort, and as a bonus, Dr. Nejad says there's no chance for cortisol-spiking surprises.

  4. Set aside some time to worry

    Telling yourself to stop worrying may not work but writing down your worry and setting aside a specific time to deal with it – for example “15 minutes at 5pm” can help you let the worry go until then.⁠

  5. Validate yourself

    Instead of judging yourself for feeling stressed, try saying, “It’s reasonable for me to feel anxious before a surgery.” Anxiety is much more likely to dissipate when you give yourself permission to feel your feelings.

  6. Focus on what you can control.

  7. While you can’t control the actual surgical procedure, Dr. Nejad notes you do have control over what happens before and after.

    “Make sure you get adequate sleep, follow instructions for food and water intake, that you’ve arranged for someone to pick you up, and that you will have adequate care during your recovery.”

  8. Ask for help - one of the most effective strategies

    Dr Nejad says asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather an act of courage. ⁠⁠You can talk to a friend, family member, doctor, or mental health professional.

    And when it comes to specific medical questions and concerns, they don’t always come to us at a time we can ask our healthcare provider, so keep a note of them as you go so that you can ask at your next appointment.

Preparing for hospital?

We put together a page for that. You can find it here and it explains:

  • Who covers what?
  • Common out-of-pocket costs
  • Choosing a Member Plus specialist/hospital
  • Getting a referral
  • Getting a quote

Learn more

Free resources and support

  • HealthDirect: 1800 022 222: Australian Government resource offering guidance and information on many health topics.
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636: Australian mental health and wellbeing support organisation offering support programs for depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental illnesses
  • Lifeline:  13 11 14: A non-profit organisation that provides 24-hour telephone crisis support
Looking for Member Plus hospitals?

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  1. 1National Library of Medicine – The Impact of Psychological Stress on Wound Healing: Methods and Mechanisms


This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.