Signs and Symptoms of Depression After Surgery or Illness

Depression is not uncommon after surgery, or even after a diagnosis that leads to surgery. Getting the news that your health isn't perfect and you need surgery, the financial pressures of obtaining health care, and feeling bad physically can all trigger an episode of depression or make the depression that is already present worse. Individuals with depression that is well controlled may find that they have "breakthrough" symptoms during an illness.

Mature female patient sitting on exam table in exam room looking down
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Illness or Surgery Can Trigger Depressive Symptoms

It shouldn't come as a surprise that feeling bad emotionally and feeling bad physically often go hand in hand. The big problem is that many people don't identify what they are feeling as depression—which can be treated in most people—and instead think that they are feeling the effects of their physical illness. 

It can be challenging to differentiate between what happens during a typical recovery from surgery and depression symptoms. In fact, many of the symptoms, such as fatigue and irritability, are common when an individual is depressed and during recovery from surgery. 


So what is depression, exactly? Depression is a serious psychological illness that can lead to impaired decision making, difficulty with day to day life, and even lead to physical illness, such as slowing healing in some cases.

Symptoms of depression include:

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Eating significantly more or less than is normal
  • Sleeping significantly more or less than is normal
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty making decisions, even minor ones
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair
  • Feelings of anxiety, stress, agitation or restlessness
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or suicide—seek immediate help
  • Thoughts of harming others—seek immediate help

Note that some of these physical symptoms are hard to distinguish from the after-effects of surgery—since surgery can affect your sleep, appetite, and energy—but those that affect the emotions should definitely trigger an assessment by a mental health professional.

Stress can trigger depression. It can be emotional stress such as a diagnosis of illness or physical stress such as surgery. Physical conditions can also lead to depression. These can include chronic pain, a shortened life expectancy, or radical changes in lifestyle. People with a family history or a personal history of depression may be more likely to develop depression in times of stress or illness.

Depression does not affect everyone in the same way. Being aware of the signs of depression is important so that it can be quickly identified and treated. For some individuals, family and friends may identify the signs of depression before the depressed individual.

When to Get Help

The symptoms that are common with surgery, such as fatigue and feeling low on energy, typically improve as the recovery progresses. Symptoms caused by depression are typically not improved with the surgery recovery. Two weeks is more than long enough to determine if the symptoms are improving with the passage of time or if they are more likely to be lingering.

If you or a loved one experience depression symptoms for two weeks or longer, seek a professional assessment immediately.

Depression and Heart Surgery

There is a known but poorly understood the link between having open heart surgery and experiencing depression. Many open heart surgery patients experience a profound depression after surgery, and this depression should be treated by a healthcare professional familiar with clinical depression.

While the depression may be triggered by surgery, it should be treated just like depression that occurs without surgery. That may mean antidepressant medication, therapy, or other treatments that are typically used to treat this type of change in mood.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Depression after a cardiac event or diagnosis.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression.

  3. Pozuelo L. Depression and heart disease. Cleveland Clinic.

  4. Tully PJ, Baker RA. Depression, anxiety, and cardiac morbidity outcomes after coronary artery bypass surgery: A contemporary and practical reviewJ Geriatr Cardiol. 2012;9(2):197–208. doi:10.3724/SP.J.1263.2011.12221

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.