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How to Survive the Stress of Surgery

By Brahna Yassky, AARP, March 2024

How to take your mind off of an upcoming medical procedure.

I am a survivor of many lifesaving surgeries that were inevitably imminent but not immediate. The most recent was brain surgery to repair an aneurysm. I’ve learned how to not stress between setting the date and entering the operating room.

The key is distraction. Before my last surgery, I went to Paris alone for eight days. Although it’s lovely to travel with a partner or friend, I went alone and so was busy navigating my days and nights. I was suspended in time with not a thought of the future.

You should follow specific instructions from your doctor, but here are some ways to keep yourself engaged and focused on something other than a looming medical procedure:

Throw yourself into work

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you are laser-focused on tasks that must be completed. If you don’t have a job, create projects and set a deadline before the surgery.


Choose a cause you believe in. When you put life into perspective, you’ll feel grateful for the one you have.

Jump into physical activities

I am an avid outdoor swimmer. My doctor said I could enjoy the summer swimming without increasing my risks before surgery. I also love to dance.When your body is moving, your mind tends to stop.

The gym is a great place to stay in the present. Walking, especially in pretty surroundings, biking, hiking, or taking yoga, Zumba, dance or Pilates classes all require concentration. Plus, the stronger your body is before surgery the faster you will heal afterward.

Spend time in nature

No matter the season, the splendors of the physical world are restorative. Take deep breaths of clean air and listen to small sounds that become everything in silence.

Visit museums

I like to visit art galleries where I can find pieces that grab my attention. I immerse myself in them rather than just wandering. Sitting in front of a painting, I try to describe to myself, everything I see. That painting remains with me for days.

Treat yourself

Buy something you consider extravagant or indulgent and plan to wear it after you recover from surgery. You will have something to delight in and look forward to. I bought a dress in Paris and wore it to my birthday dinner after surgery.

Spend time with family and friends

Connect with people you don’t see often, people with whom you have history or who make you laugh.

Go to a concert or the theater

Live performances bring all your focus to the stage. I love the opera. The sets, story, music and drama put me in another world. Whatever your musical preference, indulge yourself. Grab a friend or family member who loves the same thing and spend the evening listening, not thinking.

Play mentally challenging games

Word games, poker, or mah-jongg, chess, backgammon and bridge force you to focus on the moment, and not on that upcoming surgery.

Watch movies

During the time before surgery, I avoid ones that have to do with illness and, more pointedly, that take place in hospitals. Films with subtitles are good for demanding extra concentration. And there are always feel-good movies and classics.

Read a good book

Read a book, especially at night, when you doze off, so that the last thing you will be thinking about is someone else’s life.

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