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Overcoming anxiety after surgery

Geoff was diagnosed with a leaky mitral valve at 37 years old, which resulted in surgery in 2016. After surgery, Geoff experienced anxiety and panic attacks. He shares his journey to recovery with us below.

I'm Geoff, 40 years old, a husband to wife Nikki and Dad to 15-month-old Jack who is happy and healthy.

Before I was diagnosed with a leaky valve, I was always active, into mountain biking, stand up paddle boarding and I liked keeping fit in the gym. I was happily married, working full time in a great job and living in our own home in West Auckland.

I first noticed something was wrong when I was preparing for my first boxing match. In a training session I took a shot to the ribs and was worried something was broken so I went to the doctors for a check-up. He examined my ribs and determined that it was just bruising. However, he did notice something different about my heartbeat. He listened more, then suggested that I have further checks. Up until this point in time I never noticed anything at all different or wrong with my heart.

In August 2016, I had an echocardiogram, which confirmed mitral valve regurgitation. A month later further tests showed this was moderate to severe and I needed mitral valve repair surgery to give the valve the correct shape.

My operation was very successful and now I have no real restrictions in what I eat or how I exercise, apart from my cardiologist recommending that I don't push myself to lift super heavy weights in the gym. The biggest impact on me and my wife was the anxiety and panic attacks that developed after my surgery. I went through a very tough time for a good six months.

I had never experienced anxiety or a panic attack until then. It was very challenging to come to terms with it and had a big impact on what I was able to do or where I was able to go. I was very lucky to have an understanding wife but, also, I knew two people who had experienced anxiety, one from heart surgery, who were able to identify what I was going through.

I have spoken to counsellors and taken a range of meds – Citalopram, Lorazepam and Zopiclone. It was a hard and challenging journey, but I have come through the other side now and I would say my mental and emotional wellbeing is approximately 90-95% of what I was pre-op. I was on medication for approximately 5-6 months. Talking with people who have had a similar experience was a huge help.

Things are much better now. I am well. My memory has never been 100% after my surgery. I can still function normally in my day to day life, but I often forget things that have happened or conversations with people. I enjoy married life with my wife and watching my son grow up.

If anyone else is going through what I did, you will make it through, and you will be OK. Talking to people really helps and it is OK if you are not OK. I have been 'not OK' many, many times and it will pass.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone who is about to undergo or has gone through heart surgery and wants someone to talk to. Leave me a comment and I'll get back to you.

Shared July 2020

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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  • Sharon 26 May 2024

    I am going into week 4 of triple bypass I’m 52 and never expected to be here ! Surgery went well and recovery is slow but I’m having anxiety/panic attacks at night when I go to bed. It started my first night home and I woke up thinking I was in a hospital room all by myself un monitored! Now sleep eludes me ! Do you have any suggestions regarding strategies and will I ever sleep more than 2 hours ever again ? Thanks in advance

  • Justin 11 August 2023

    Thanks for your words, Geoff. I’m in my seventh week since aortic valve replacement surgery, and the anxiety has been my greatest challenge. The further I get away from the surgery, the more people expect me to be normal, but I can’t be normal yet, and this tension causes my anxiety to bloom. Words like your remind me that I’m not alone.

  • Jeff 11 January 2023

    Geoff - thank you for your story. I had a valve replacement approx 5 months ago and the surgery went well. I am slowly getting back to working out but have had issues with panic attacks at night at times and general anxiety. I worry that something is still wrong despite all good tests, etc. I have started to do more meditation. Reading your story was very helpful. Thank you. Jeff

  • 16 September 2021

    Thanks for being so open and honest about your post surgery recovery. I went through open heart surgery a year ago and I am still having cycles of anxiety that I manage with yoga and audio affirmations. If only there was mandatory counselling provided before and after. If you go into surgery relatively young it’s expected that you will recover fast , which I did physically, but no way at all mentally.

  • Chris 9 September 2021

    Hi Geoff, i had my mv repair a week ago and like you, i have been active with sports and hitting the gym. How long did you wait before you get back lifting weights again? I am also abit concern if my regurgitation will reoccur if i get my heart tired by doing cardio and getting back to my normal sports activity.

  • Geoff 15 July 2021

    Hi Rebecca,

    I just saw your comment now. I wonder how you are doing? Was the operation successful? I hope you are doing well. Let me know how you got on. Kind regards, Geoff

  • Rebecca 8 March 2021

    I would love to know more. I am asymptomatic and facing mitral valve replacement in 3 months

  • Mary-Ann 17 December 2020

    Hi Geoff, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so grateful to you and other heart surgery kindred souls for sharing your experiences, warts and all. Makes me feel normal and more accepting of what I’ve been through and continue to experience. I had aortic valve replacement on 26 October 2020. Scary at the best of times. Very unnerving during COVID. I’m 54 years old. Recovery has gone mostly well but I have recurring bouts of pericarditis (Dressler’s Syndrome) which are frustrating and do bring me to despair. Not being able to see my family and friends has been very challenging. I have a boyfriend who has been my post-op caregiver but his patience have clearly worn thin. Yet another stress I could do without. I hope all is well with you, your heart and your family. Thank you again. Take good care, Mary-Ann (Montreal, Canada)

  • Darren 31 July 2020

    Hi geoff. Thanks again mate for your visits and encouragement when i was going through my hardest times. Glad to see you put up yr story. We must catch up soon cheers.Darren.

  • Geoff 29 July 2020

    Hi Andrea, thank you for your kind words. I wish you all the very best and hope to hear some good news regarding your surgery from you soon. Take care! :)
    Kind regards, Geoff.

  • Andrea 27 July 2020

    You have been very brave Geoff.
    Well done !