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Looking after your mental health if an operation has been delayed

Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
05 May 2020

If your operation has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it can be a particularly worrying time. As difficult as it can be, trying to keep a positive mindset during this time can really make a difference to your health before surgery, and your recovery afterwards too. It might help to think of this time as opportunity to prepare, so you’re in the best place both physically and mentally when your operation is finally able to go ahead.


Take time to relax

Taking time out to relax is really important during this time. Here are some ideas – try them out and see what works for you.

  • Learning some breathing techniques can be really helpful now, as well as giving you a good tool to use later on, to reduce anxiety around the time you’re having your procedure. Focus on taking deeper, longer breaths – try counting as you breathe in and out, and take note of your stomach rising and falling.
  • Another relaxation technique you can practise is something known as progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn.
  • Do something you enjoy and that gives you time away from stressful thoughts – whether that’s listening to music, having a bath, doing something creative, like colouring, or reading a book.
  • Try to take time out from your phone, from social media and from news updates – particularly if you’re finding this stressful in the current situation.
  • Think about how you can build mindfulness into your day-to-day life. Mindfulness means learning how to focus on the present moment. It can help you to feel more self-aware, and in control of your thoughts and feelings. It might mean taking time to notice the trees, flowers and plants in your garden or the park, or really focusing on the music you’re listening to.
  • Build these relaxation strategies into your bedtime routine. Feeling worried and anxious can affect how well you sleep; but lack of sleep in turn can also make you feel low. Getting into a good sleep routine will really help your mental health.

Managing anxiety

Keeping your mind busy will give you something to focus on, and less time to worry. It can help to keep as much of a routine as possible, including when you get up in the morning and what time you go to bed. Think about how you can spend your time at home. Maybe there are things you want to do but never normally have time for – reading a book, baking, doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing a musical instrument? Or perhaps you’d rather get stuck into a longer-term project, like doing some DIY, having a sort-out of the house, or tidying up the garden?

Try to get some sunlight and fresh air as much as you can – even if this means standing outside your front door or sitting by an open window. This can really help with your mental health. Don’t forget to stay in touch with friends and family too. Although you might not be able to see them in person right now, there are lots of other ways to stay connected. Make plans to video chat or talk to loved ones on the phone, or stay in touch with emails and texts.

If you do find yourself feeling anxious, there are still things you can do to feel in control of your feelings. You might find it helps to allow yourself a set time when you’ll think about your worries, leaving the rest of your time free to focus on other things. Perhaps have a trusted, supportive friend or loved one who you can talk it over with. Some people find it helpful to write down thoughts and worries in a journal too – once it’s down on paper you might feel happier to move on.

Being active

Being active isn’t just good for your physical health, it’s also really important for your mental wellbeing. Physical activity is known to release hormones that make you feel better and give you more energy. If you’re able to get outside for a walk, jog or cycle, then do – taking care to follow the latest government guidelines on exercise and social distancing.

If you’re shielding for health reasons (not leaving the house at all), there’s still lots of things you can do at home to keep active. There are numerous workouts and virtual classes now available online in almost every type of activity imaginable. You can keep up with your favourite activities – or perhaps now’s the time to try a new one. If online workouts aren’t your thing, just making an effort to keep moving around your house or garden will help to keep you active.

Eat well

If your usual routine has changed, chances are your appetite and your diet may have done so too. But try to think about what you’re eating. What you eat has an important effect on your mood. Try to eat small amounts, regularly, choosing wholegrain carbohydrates that release energy slowly. This will help to keep your sugar levels steady throughout the day; giving you more energy and helping you to think more clearly.

Avoid sugary foods and drinks that will give you a sharp rise and fall in sugar level, and make you feel low. Caffeine – which you’ll find in tea, coffee, coca cola and energy drinks – can also make you feel anxious and depressed if you have too much, and can also disturb your sleep.

Keeping informed

Finally, making sure you’re well prepared for your operation will help you to feel ready once it is able to be rescheduled. If you have any choices to make about the operation, such as what type of anaesthetic you want to have for instance, you could use this additional time to review your options. Are there any practical tasks you need to do to prepare for your surgery? Some procedures allow you to play music – maybe you could work on putting together a playlist or finding a podcast you want to listen to. The Royal College of Anaesthetists has some great information on what practical things you can do to prepare for surgery.

Although the timing of your operation might be out of your hands, being as informed as possible about your options and the surgery itself can help you to feel in control. Stay in touch with your doctor and ask about any other treatments that may be possible while you wait for surgery, or for any specific advice they have on keeping healthy.

If you are finding it particularly tough waiting to hear about your operation, your doctor or nurse may be able to help refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You can also self-refer for some NHS mental health services online, or you may have other access to mental services through private healthcare. Don’t forget the current situation will come to pass, and your operation will be rearranged as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance

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