Clinical Compassion: How Self-Care Makes a Difference After Surgery

Imagine if people were ashamed to have cancer. And that the stigma was so great it could actually affect the outcome of surgery to remove their tumor. It may seem shocking, but that’s exactly what a recent study has shown for patients struggling with obesity.

Bariatric surgeries can represent hope when all other options have failed. And like any operation, they have major impacts on the body that require diligent preparation and follow-up. A study published in the journal Obesity found that a significant number of people who undergo bariatric surgeries experience high levels of anxiety, depression, and internalized shame about their illness — and that these psychological issues can seriously affect their post-operation success.

The study revealed that poor mental health in bariatric surgery patients can lead to higher risk of post-operative issues like weight gain, substance abuse and even self-harm. In other words, external biases and societal stigma surrounding obesity not only affect patients’ mental health, they can prevent them from getting better.

But the study also provides hope: active self-compassion can help reduce the risk.

Self-compassion is exactly what it sounds like: making a focused effort to be kind to yourself. For obese patients, it needs to be a priority. That means giving yourself credit for your success and forgiving yourself for perceived failures. Self-compassion is an actionable skill that can be developed and reinforced. Patients — even those not struggling with low self-esteem, shame or anxiety — can easily add it to their regimen. Now it seems as though techniques designed for our mental health can make the difference in our physical healing process.

 Shame and internalized biases about weight are difficult enough without being reinforced by your doctor and other caregivers. That’s why it’s crucial for medical professionals to fight stigma and bias in their care. There have always been good reasons for this — providing patients with a safe, supportive space as one example — but this study shows it has real, clinical impacts on patient health.

This study makes clear something I believe quite passionately: the medical profession urgently needs to de-stigmatize obesity and begin treating it like we would any other medical condition. That begins with helping patients reduce their own feelings of shame or internal stigma, teaching them that the road to recovery begins with self-love.  

If you or someone you care about are considering bariatric surgeries, please take time for the mental health care you deserve, both in the lead up to the procedure and as you recover. In fact, why not make self-compassion part of your regular routine?