Getting Used to a New You (How to Emotionally Recover from Cosmetic Surgery)

Man with bandage on face.
Plastic surgery may seem like the answer to a litany of physical imperfections, but what if you don't like the results?
Adam Gault/Getty Images

We're all beautiful in our own ways, but most of us weren't lucky enough to be graced with the kind of face that would look right at home on the cover of a fashion magazine. No, we all have our little imperfections—a nose that hooks slightly to the right, lips that aren't quite plump enough, breasts that droop instead of perk up. And even those lucky few who were born with the kind of face that could stop traffic sometimes find they don't get the same kind of attention once age and gravity intervene, leaving behind its veil of unsightly wrinkles, lines and spots.

The quest for and desire to re-attain physical perfection--or just the simple need to feel better about ourselves--is what sends more than 1.6 million of us to plastic surgeons annually, at a cost of almost $6.6 billion every year. The majority of plastic surgery seekers come in search of more voluminous or petite breasts (breast augmentation or reduction), trimmer thighs and tummies (liposuction and abdominoplasty), and younger-looking eyes (eyelid surgery) [source: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery].


Plastic surgery may make us look better, but it won't necessarily make us happier. After the bandages are removed and the physical scars have healed, the emotional wounds that prompted the surgery can still linger. Having an expensive procedure can't cure the insecurity and self-esteem issues that bring people to their plastic surgeon in the first place. Surgery side effects and botched results can lead to temporary, or longer-term sadness. Plastic surgery has even driven some people to the point of suicide.

Why do some people get depressed -- even despondent -- after their plastic surgery? Read on to find out.


Post-Plastic Surgery Depression

If a certain part of your body is making you unhappy, and you have that body part surgically altered to improve its appearance, you should feel better, right? You should, but don't count on it: Research has found that about 87 percent of people are happy with the results of their surgery and have improved self-esteem afterward, but a smaller percentage are still dissatisfied after their procedure [source: Aesthetic Surgery Journal].

Some people have to contend with sadness, difficulty sleeping, appetite loss, and an inability to concentrate after their surgery. This phenomenon is known as post-surgical depression [source: PRIME]. Many factors can contribute to post-surgical depression, including:


  • Anesthesia and pain medications
  • Side effects of the surgery
  • An inability to get back to normal life and activities
  • Needing to depend on others for help
  • A lack of support from family or friends after surgery
  • Disappointment over the surgery outcome (this is often temporary, and improves as the scars fade)

Even after a successful surgery, you may feel tired and uncomfortable during the healing process. Both the anesthesia you were given during the procedure, and the medicines you take afterward to control pain can cause some of the effects of depression -- including fatigue, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating.

When you're expecting physical improvement, it can be hard to look at a swollen face covered in bandages. Once the bandages come off, you may not like what you see right away. It can take weeks -- or even months -- for the swelling to subside and the wounds to heal enough for you to see the real results. During that time you might wonder, "Will I ever look good again?" Even if the surgery was technically a success, the end results may not be what you had expected.

When personal trainer and author Laura Pillarella had a chin implant and eye procedure, her response when the bandages came off was disappointment. "I wasn't beautiful -- just different. It wasn't enough," she told the Daily Mail. Fifteen procedures later, Pillarella had become so disheartened that she considered ending her life [source: Mail Online].

Some women, like Pillarella, sink so far into the depths of despair after plastic surgery that they consider suicide. Studies have found that the suicide risk is three times higher among women who have undergone breast augmentation than in the general population [source: Annals of Plastic Surgery]. Researchers don't know exactly why this is, but it may be that the women who undergo plastic surgery already have emotional conditions that predispose them to suicidal thoughts.

Who's at greatest risk for depression after plastic surgery? Click to the next page to find out.


Who's Most At Risk for Depression After Plastic Surgery?

Woman with bandage on face.
Are you a candidate for the post-surgery blues?
Blend Images/Jon Feingersh/Getty Images

Some people sail through their plastic surgery with no problem. But certain groups of people don't feel any emotional relief--and may be more likely to experience depression after their plastic surgery [source: Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery]. Who's likeliest to get the post-surgery blues?

  • Anyone who goes into the procedure with unrealistic expectations is often disappointed by the results. If you're aiming for perfection, you're not likely to find it at the end of a plastic surgeon's knife.
  • Those who have surgery for the wrong reasons -- for example, a woman who bows to her boyfriend's desire for bigger breasts might not be happy living with a larger chest.
  • People with a history of anxiety, depression or personality disorders are likely to be just as unhappy after their surgery as they were before it. Research finds that many people who decide to have plastic surgery are already suffering from depression. In one study, half of all plastic surgery patients had taken an antidepressant or other drug for a mental disorder in the past [source: Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery].
  • People who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) are more likely to undergo plastic surgery -- and are less likely to find relief from it. They're so obsessed with a flaw they're convinced they have, that no amount of surgery may be able to help. [source: Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience]
  • Men are more susceptible to post-surgical depression because they tend to be stoic and not ask for the support they need [source: American Society of Plastic Surgeons].

These groups of people may need to be counseled before having surgery. Also, careful screening before surgery can ensure that the right candidate is paired with the right procedure.


On the next page, you'll learn how to go into your plastic surgery with the right expectations so you won't walk away unhappy afterward.


Combating Sadness after Surgery

No one can guarantee that you'll be thrilled with the results of your plastic surgery, but there are steps you can take to get the best possible results--both physically, and emotionally.

Before your surgery, make sure you do the following:


  • Choose the best possible plastic surgeon -- someone who specializes in the procedure you want -- so you're more likely to have your desired outcome. Find a surgeon who is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery or the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Ask how many of these surgeries the doctor has performed. More is always better.
  • It's important to have realistic expectations about your plastic surgery. Talk to your doctor before your surgery. Ask how much pain and discomfort to expect, how long it will take you to recover, what you'll look like during the recovery process, and what the final result should be. That way you won't have any unpleasant surprises.

After your surgery:

  • Talk to your surgeon after your procedure, too. Find out how to deal with the physical and emotional side effects of your surgery, and ask when and who to call if you have any problems you can't handle at home.
  • You can expect to feel tired and sore for a few days after your surgery. Don't try to jump out of bed and get back to your normal life right away. You need the downtime to recover.
  • Plan to have someone there to support you during the recovery process. Just having someone caring to talk to can ease your worries and sadness.

Remember that plastic surgery can only change your exterior -- it can't cure the self-esteem problems and depression inside. If your sadness goes on day after day, get help. Talk to a psychologist or counselor about getting treatment for your depression. Studies on heart surgery patients with post-surgical depression have found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help. During this treatment, a therapist helps you understand the problems that are causing your depression, and then works with you to help overcome those problems [source: Archives of General Psychiatry].


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "Quick Facts." (January 24, 2012)
  • American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "Survey shows that more than half of Americans approve of cosmetic surgery." April 4, 2011. (January 27, 2012).
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "After Your Surgery." (January 27, 2012).
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  • Ellin, Abby. "The Golden Years, Polished with Surgery." The New York Times. August 8, 2011. (January 24, 2012).
  • FDA. "Breast Implants: Risks of Breast Implants." (January 27, 2012).
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  • Lipworth, Loren, et al. "Excess Mortality from Suicide and Other External Causes of Death Among Women with Cosmetic Breast Implants." Annals of Plastic Surgery. Volume 59. No. 2. Pp. 119-123. August 2007. m/annalsplasticsurgery/Abstract/2007/08000/Excess_Mortality_From_Suicide_and_Other_External.1.aspx.
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