Understanding and Dealing With a Fear of Surgery

If you or your child have an upcoming surgery, you may be scared and worried. If so, you're not alone. It's completely normal to be anxious. There are times when this normal fear can become so severe that it becomes a serious concern. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that people can take to help address their fear of surgery.

When Fear Becomes a Psychological Issue

Surgical anxiety becomes a psychological issue when your fear of surgery is so significant that you may begin to have physical symptoms like a racing heart, nausea, and chest pain. A severe bout of anxiety is commonly known as a panic attack and can be caused when someone who is afraid of surgery dwells on their fear.

Patients with an anxiety disorder may be more prone to surgical anxiety and fear that​ the average patient, but many people first experience anxiety when they're preparing for surgery.

Causes of Surgical Anxiety

The reasons for surgical anxiety vary from fear of the unknown to having a bad experience with previous surgeries. Surgical anxiety can also be caused by fear of the result of the surgery, like an alteration in the appearance of your body, such as a mastectomy.

Another surgery that can affect your self-esteem is prostate surgery, where you have to face the risk that you may lose sexual function. While all surgeries have a risk of death, some surgeries have a higher risk than others, which may cause you to ponder your own mortality.

Seek Help If Your Anxiety Is Severe

If you experience severe anxiety, seek treatment if it's severe so that your health doesn't suffer. Anxiety can be a vicious cycle. Patients with severe anxiety may postpone or avoid surgery, even if it's extremely harmful to their health. Controlling the anxiety well enough to allow surgery to proceed is essential.

Here are 5 tips to cope with your upcoming surgery, whether you're dealing with normal or severe anxiety:

Arm Yourself With Information

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An important step in dealing with surgical anxiety is to become as well informed as possible regarding your illness, prescribed therapies, and surgical treatment. Having a complete understanding of the procedure, why you need it, and how it's performed can relieve a great deal of worry.

If your anxiety is caused by a lack of knowledge about the procedure, it's essential that you ask questions and find answers until the decision to have the surgery and the choice of surgeon is fully understood.

An understanding of anesthesia and the low risks of having anesthesia may also help with your concerns about surgery. For many, anxiety is a normal response to being expected to make a life-altering decision with minimal information. Once you have the necessary facts, your anxiety may be relieved.

If your anxiety is due to financial concerns, make sure to find out ahead of time what sick time or disability coverage you have available, as well as what health insurance will cover and what costs will be passed on to you. Making a payment plan beforehand with the hospital may help alleviate your financial worry too.

Talk to Your Surgeon About Your Fear

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In some cases, you may be anxious because you have no idea what the results of the surgery will be. The physician performing the surgery can provide a realistic idea of what the outcome of the surgery will be and a typical course of recovery.

When your anxiety is related to the surgery itself and understanding the procedure doesn't help alleviate it, some surgeons will recommend prescription drug therapy to calm you enough to make the surgery possible. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are typically used for this purpose.

If you have had a bad experience with surgery, or you've had a loved one who has, speaking with the surgeon may provide reassurance that this is a different surgery and a different situation.

Explore Alternative Anxiety Remedies

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Some patients benefit from treatments that are considered alternative medicine, such as acupressure, acupuncture, massage, tapping, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, and herbal supplements. If you're open to the use of these non-traditional remedies, you may find some level of relief, even if it's just being able to sleep more deeply.

Complementary treatments should be used as a way to combat the anxiety associated with surgery, not as a replacement for your surgery.

Herbal supplements, including teas, powders, and other all-natural plant extracts should not be used without consulting your surgeon. Many herbs, despite the label “all natural” are known to interact badly with anesthesia and other medications. Some can cause blood thinning, heart arrhythmias, and other reactions that are not desirable during surgery.

Studies have shown that something as simple as listening to music or reading a book during the preoperative phase can alleviate anxiety by taking your mind off of what's about to happen. If you have a normal way that you cope with stress, such as taking a bath or a walk, it should help with surgical anxiety too.

Seek Counseling If Your Fear Persists

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If your anxiety persists, even with a full understanding of what's realistic during and after your procedure, counseling may be an option. In situations where surgery can have an impact on your self-esteem, such as the removal of a breast or surgery that potentially causes erectile dysfunction, counseling may help you cope with the changes.

If you're having surgery for a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, you may also benefit from speaking to a counselor. Being able to discuss your concerns openly with someone who isn't directly involved can be very therapeutic, especially if your friends and family members are unable to be impartial.

Counseling may also help you conquer your fear if you've had a bad experience with surgery or with health care in general. Most therapists are able to recommend exercises to help you control your anxiety and your physical response to stress.

Helping Your Child With Surgical Anxiety

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Children are unique when it comes to surgery because they often take on the attitude of their parents, good or bad. If you're obviously afraid of surgery, your child will likely be fearful too.

Addressing both your and your child's anxiety is very important as studies have shown that children who are calm before surgery have better outcomes.

Children should be told about the procedure with enough time to have their questions answered. Surprising a child with a surgical procedure can lead to a lasting fear of health care and should be avoided whenever possible.

If you have a healthy attitude toward the surgery, your child likely will too, so it's important to be upbeat and positive about surgery in general. Here's a great example: “After your tonsils are removed, you'll be able to eat ice cream and popsicles,” rather than, “After your surgery, you'll get cold things to eat because your throat will hurt.”

The best way to approach preparing your child for surgery varies with the age of your child. With young children, parents often decide not to tell the child about the surgery until a few days prior to the procedure since it can be a long time to wait for a child.

Older children may be well aware of the scheduled surgery but should have multiple opportunities to ask questions of the surgeon. In older children, their view of surgery may be skewed by what they've seen on television, so a meeting with the surgeon may be necessary in order for your child to have a clear understanding of their surgery.

Most pediatric hospitals offer pre-surgery tours and information sessions to help relieve anxiety.

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.
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  2. Peck T, Wong A, Norman E. Anaesthetic implications of psychoactive drugs. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain. 2010;10(6):177-181. doi:10.1093/bjaceaccp/mkq037

  3. Bradt J, Dileo C, Shim M. Music interventions for preoperative anxiety. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(6):CD006908. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006908.pub2

  4. Fortier MA, Kain ZN. Treating perioperative anxiety and pain in children: a tailored and innovative approach. Paediatr Anaesth. 2015;25(1):27-35. doi:10.1111/pan.12546

Additional Reading

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.