Mind Over Appendix? I Don’t Think So


Sometimes God uses you own words with which to knock you over the head. Today I read a meaningful email by someone who had read my book. She said it was the passage on page 120 to 121 that provided the epiphany moment she needed to seek help for her mood disorder.

I was curious to see what was on these pages, so I got a copy out and read this:

Trying too hard was precisely my problem. It was the “mind over spoon” [trying to bend a spoon with my thoughts like the famous psychic Uri Geller does] issue again. In my mind, I was failing because I couldn’t think myself to perfect health. I couldn’t do it all myself.

Dr. Smith salvaged the last crumb of my self-esteem with this compassionate statement: “Mindful meditation, yoga, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are extremely helpful for people with mild to moderate depression. But they don’t work for people such as yourself who are suicidal or severely depressed.”

Her advice was grounded in neuroscience.

One research study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in particular, used high-definition brain imaging to reveal a breakdown in the emotional processing that impairs the depressive’s ability to suppress negative emotions. In fact, the more effort that depressives put into reframing thoughts–the harder they tried to think positive–the more activation there was in the amygdala, regarded by neurobiologists as a person’s “fear center.” Says Tom Johnstone, Ph.D. the lead study author at the University of Wisconsin: “Healthy individuals putting more cognitive effort into [reframing the content] get a bigger payoff in terms of decreasing activity in the brain’s emotional response centers. In the depressed individuals, you find the exact opposite.”

And then Dr. Smith asked me this: if I had been in a terrible automobile accident would I be so hard on myself?

“If you were in a wheelchair with casts on each of your limbs,” she said, “would you beat yourself up for not healing yourself with your thoughts? For not thinking yourself into perfect condition?”

Of course not.

When I injured my knee while training for a marathon, I didn’t expect myself to visualize my tendonitis away so that I could run. I dropped out of the race to rest my joints and muscles so I wouldn’t further damage them.

Yet I expected myself to think away my mood disorder, which involved a disease in my brain, an organ just like my heart, lungs, and kidneys.

“What’s most important is to find a medication combination that works so that you can be able to do all that other stuff to feel even better,” she said. “I will give you a list of books you should read if you want to study depression. Until you feel stronger, I suggest you stay away from the type of self-help literature you have brought it because those texts can do further damage if read in a very depressed state.”

I have drifted a long ways from that wisdom.

I am back to trying to bend the damn spoon. Forcing it with all my strength.

Back in August, I nearly died because I believed that I could fix a ruptured appendix with my thoughts. I held off on doing anything about the severe abdominal pain for a day or two because I was sure the agony was all in my head, and that if I convinced myself I wasn’t in pain, then I would start to feel better. “I’m definitely on the road to recovery,” I explained to my husband keeled over at the kitchen table. Thank God he insisted I call my doctor, because I would be still be trying to bend that spoon in the afterlife had he not been there to knock some sense into me.

A few weeks ago I was encouraged to get a biopsy for the growing lump that my endocrinologist found in my thyroid. I was disappointed that the result was negative. This should alert the average person that something might not be right. But for me, that only meant I had to try harder and swim more laps, run more miles, sit longer under my HappyLite, and carve out more time for prayer. The death wish translated to my carelessness about letting some component of my recovery plan slide. There was no thought of calling my doctor.

Ironically, the pressure I put on myself to think right and to feel right is aggravating the healing process and making me feel much worse. Just as the University of Wisconsin neurobiologists explain, my amygdala is over activated, on fire, and is in a wreckless pursuit of controlling everything and anything it encounters.

So here’s a good reminder to you, and especially to me, that your thoughts can only help you so much. They cannot piece together your appendix, or fix your knee tendons. There are things like biochemistry and faulty brain circuits, cell death and susceptibility genes, and many organic structures of the brain that need to be taken into consideration, so that we all don’t perish as we stare at the spoon.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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