The Emotional Journey of Bariatric Surgery: Navigating Post-Surgery Challenges and Triumphs
Undergoing bariatric surgery is far from taking the easy way out. When you get bariatric surgery, you’re committing to one of the toughest journeys you’ll take in your life. Along with overhauling your eating and exercise habits, and likely other parts of your life, you’ll face emotional challenges, too. Here’s an overview of some challenges and triumphs post-surgery so you can prepare to navigate them.
Common Challenges After Bariatric Surgery
Eating well, exercising regularly, and taking your vitamins are just some of the daily challenges that you may face after bariatric surgery. Others may include more emotional challenges. These are some examples.
Self-worth may have been low when you were overweight, but bariatric surgery isn’t a magic fix. Even if you lose as much weight, as fast as you hoped, you may not find that your self-worth increases as fast as your weight comes off. You may even find that you feel less worthy.
It could be the result of an expectation that losing weight will automatically make you feel better about yourself. Or, it could be that your focus shifts from weight to other things in your life that may make you feel down.
Relationships may change as your behaviors change. You may need to change attitudes and behaviors surrounding eating, meal prep, and what you do in your leisure time. These can alter how you interact with people. In addition, relationships can change if people perceive that your personality changes after surgery.
Major changes in your life can trigger changes in emotions and mood. Depression rates are higher in bariatric surgery patients than in their counterparts, possibly related to challenges from surgery or disappointing results. Additional challenges, such as sagging skin, can increase depression. Anxiety can also result from changes in lifestyle, as well as new social and other situations to handle.
At some point, you might lose motivation. Weight loss can take 1 to 2 or more years, and that’s a long time to stay focused on making healthy choices. There may be periods during which motivation decreases and you wonder whether all of your efforts are worthwhile. Motivation can also drop if you happen to get off track, such as at a social event or during the holiday season. It can feel hard to get back on the bandwagon.
For many bariatric surgery patients, food is an addiction. Post-op patients may turn to other things to replace their food addiction. Another term for this is addiction transfer. Examples may include going to the gym and overexercising, gambling, and overusing alcohol. It’s good to keep an eye out for unhealthy replacement addictions so you can address them as soon as you notice them.
Though you may not have been thrilled about your body before, post-op patients sometimes experience a loss of confidence. You may have insecurities about the new appearance of your body, or you may be unsure of how people may react to your weight loss.
Six Non-Scale Victories to Celebrate
Though there can be many challenges post-op, there are also many triumphs to celebrate. The most objective measure of success is weight loss. You may be losing weight most weeks, and that is very gratifying.
Another set of triumphs are non-scale victories, or NSV. These are victories that happen off of the scale. It’s important to watch for them and celebrate them as they happen so you can stay motivated. These are some examples of addiction transfers.
You may fit into smaller sizes, or fit into outfits that you hadn’t been able to wear since high school. Or, you might look good in styles that you couldn’t pull off before.
When exercise feels better, it means that you’re at least exercising - and that can be an NSV in itself. But when it feels good, it means you’re making progress. It may have felt hard at the beginning, and left you drained later in the day. When exercise is energizing, it means you’re in better shape.
Is your doctor pleased with your progress? Are your lab test results better? Have you been put on lower doses of meds? When you are healthier, it can show up in the doctor’s office, and that’s something to celebrate. Of course, never change your medication dosing without your doctor’s permission!
An NSV may be when you notice that you want to be in photos instead of being the one behind the camera. It’s because you are proud of how you look, and you feel like you belong in the photo. That’s a nice step forward!
That means you’re enjoying healthy foods more, so it’s not a chore to eat them. Plus, it’s less effort to choose healthier options because you’ve done it so much that it’s become a habit.
Getting Help After Bariatric Surgery
These challenges can be difficult to navigate on your own. Support from those you love, such as friends or family members, can be invaluable. It’s important to ask for help when you need it, and to know whom you can trust to listen and offer advice as you experience ups and downs.
Professional help can also be necessary. There’s a reason that your bariatric surgery team is a “team” and not just a surgeon. There are experts in different areas of bariatric care, and one of those experts should be a mental health expert. The person may be in the office, or she may be a phone call away. A nutritionist and a physical activity expert can also help overcome some challenges.
If you haven’t already been in touch with a mental health professional, ask your surgeon or another provider on your team. They should be able to refer you to someone who can offer the support and ideas you need to successfully navigate post-surgery challenges and triumphs.
Bariatric surgery doesn’t just lead to challenges and triumphs with eating and weight, but also with emotions. By recognizing them, accepting them, and facing them, you can let these challenges and triumphs help guide your journey.