The main aims of this study were to evaluate the intensity of stress, anxiety and depression as well as the effectiveness of coping strategies adopted pre-operatively in brain neoplasm patients. A descriptive–explorative study design was undertaken. During 2008, patients admitted to a large Italian hospital neurosurgical unit with their first (n = 21) or recurrent (n = 15) brain neoplasm, on the day before their surgical procedure, were consecutively recruited into the study. The Perceived Stress Scale, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and the Jalowiec Coping Scale were administered via face-to-face interview. Patients with their first occurrence of neoplasm perceived the same stress intensity as those with recurrent neoplasm (mean ± standard deviation: 14.9 ± 6.7 versus 17.2 ± 8.8, p = 0.36). They also reported the same likelihood of anxiety at a borderline level (odds ratio (OR) 4.88, 95%CI 0.42 to 40.97, p = 0.06) and at a clinically relevant level (OR 0.32, 95%CI 0.01 to 5.37, p = 0.35) as well as the same likelihood of depression at a borderline level (OR 1.25, 95%CI 0.20 to 8.40, p = 0.78). Only one case of clinically relevant depression emerged among patients at their first diagnosis. Patients at their first occurrence, as well as those at recurrence, reported that they adopted optimistic coping strategies (mean 2.20, 95%CI 2.01 to 2.38 versus mean 1.96, 95%CI 1.71 to 2.20) and sought support (mean 1.81, 95%CI 1.58 to 2.05 versus mean 1.89, 95%CI 1.63 to 2.15). According to the findings of this exploratory study, on the pre-operative day, brain neoplasm patients at their first diagnosis and at recurrence wish to confront the situation: they adopt optimistic coping strategies, they seek support and they wish to take a constructive problem-solving approach. Knowledge of the intensity of stress, anxiety and depression as well as the coping strategies adopted by the patients is important for clinicians in their efforts to tailor care to patients' individual needs. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.