Dental Surgery Fear, Anxiety — and Breakdown?

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 19-year-old female. I want a professional opinion about whether it would be wise for me to seek therapy. In the past two months I’ve had a great deal of stress. Five weeks ago I had my wisdom teeth removed, and I think I was suffering from the psychological effects of having surgery performed on me.

I feel like I’m getting better, but I can’t seem to drop the anxieties I had while I was recovering. I had quite a few major anxiety attacks out of the fear of having something permanently wrong with me, like nerve damage. Somehow I got it in my head that I had brain damage from the anesthetic. I realize how irrational that is now. For some time I have felt as if I was going crazy.

I was not in tune with my emotions, and if I’d cry I’d just stop and go back to feeling ‘neutral’ again. I felt displaced in my own home and life, as if I was a different person, and was now incapable of doing the things I used to do. The thing I was most concerned about, however, was feeling dazed, along with memory problems and not being able to easily remember what went on in the day. I could not think clearly or deeply about anything.

I’m afraid this was an emotional or mental breakdown, and even though I do feel better, I am still concerned about myself. I think I’ve tormented myself so much with these feelings of doubt that it was inevitable that I’d still be feeling out of place. Is all this a result of severe stress? My mother doesn’t understand what I’ve gone through emotionally, and asks questions like “well, what do you want to do?” causing me to question my progress. Should I seek help or will I be okay?

Psychologist’s Reply

Based on your description, it sounds like you’re experiencing post-surgical depression with a heaping dose of anxiety on the side. Many people undergoing surgery — everything from heart repair and knee replacement to hysterectomies and dental surgery — go through periods of emotional recovery like you described. They may feel like they’re going crazy when in reality it’s more about dealing with a major bodily trauma.

A lot of people also experience problems with both memory and concentration following their surgery. This is called Post Operative Cognitive Dysfunction and, for the vast majority of patients (especially for someone as young as you), this goes away within a couple of months. In other words, all of these feelings that make you think you’re experiencing a nervous breakdown may simply go away if you give them time. In fact, you mentioned a few times that you already felt better, so you can see that you are making progress.

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Until they do, I recommend a few things. First, accept that the feelings you are having are normal reactions to surgery and do not indicate severe mental illness. Sometimes fighting against feelings causes them to become stronger. Second, engage in some deep breathing, relaxation exercises and/or guided imagery. These techniques will help reduce anxiety before it starts. Third, whenever you do feel anxious, utilize positive self-talk (e.g., “This is just anxiety. I am fine and it will soon pass.”) and distraction.

It sounds to me like you will be OK, but it never hurts to have a backup plan. If you do not start feeling better within three months of your surgery, I do recommend seeking assistance.

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