Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

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.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kevin Keough

    Thanks Therese. This one is destined to become a classic. I’ve been trying to cure Parkinson’s via positive thoughts and all sorts of self-help activity. It is amazing how goofy we get with the willpower trap. Needless to say, the fact some close to me deny I have Parkinson’s fuels my efforts to cure it. Today, I will give that one a break.

    Dark humor intact–it is funny as hell to imagine you telling your husband you had willed a rupturing appendix back to health. You go girl !

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Julie P.

    Dear Therese…….I love you:)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Elizabeth

    Gosh, this post really speaks to me. I always blame myself for everything that goes wrong with me mentally and physically. Along with that, I also think if I just do such and such– then, I’ll heal myself. It seems it doesn’t matter how many times my doctor or therapist tell me I didn’t cause my mood disorder to flare up or my sinus headache to explode– somehow I always blame myself and then try to figure out how I can fix myself.

    Gosh– why are we like this?

    I am going to print this post out and read it from time to time to remind myself about what is what.

    I am so glad you didn’t die!


  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jami

    Oh my, this one is a keeper.

    A good reminder to get off the “responsible for everything” bus:-)

  • noch

    thanks for the reminder. you are right, i was so hard on myself to “recover” from depression and it actually made things worse. i beat myself up for not thinking positive. whereas once i embraced depression and understood it was simply a state i went through, i decided that time will heal. thoughts are important in the process of recovery, but like you say, so are other biological factors!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sam Gyura

    Thank you Therese. This is one of the best articles you’ve written in a while. Doesn’t mean your other posts are crap, just this stands out. Always sending best wishes to you, Sam.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment peggy

    thank you for all your great advice. i’ve been told by people that if i would ‘just snap out of it” i would be fine. i will now give myself a break and not think that i can cure myself of depression.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Anne S.

    As usual, I get the most out of your candid, vulnerable essays. And I echo the sentiments of all the above comments. This is definitely worthy of re-reading over and over again. Thank you!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary Anne Thompson


    Thankyou for this! I have been in so much pain with my DDD that I called my 82 yr old Mother (who has Alzhemiers) just to hear her voice. She has no understanding of bad backs, disc’s the disorders and said “well I will pray for you”. To me that is like someone trying to say the will think me fixed. I have had 5 ESI procedure’s, depend on narcotic pain pills. After my car accident Labor Day wknd when I went to the ER I had to have Morophine in my IV and 2 valiums by mouth for some relief but my Mom is gonna pray away the pain? I do believe in the power of prayer but I am also a realist. If one has a physical medical condition prayer will not repair it. Like you having your appendix surgery. I get so tired of people telling me to think positive, they will keep me in their prayers….it is like bending a whole drawer of silveware…. NOT gonna work! I was recently reading Beyond Blue again and I laugh everytime I get to the part you were talking about where you refer to “Amy” Those of us with mental imbalances have enough invisible pain then add anything physical to it and it is just more that our brains know how to handle. Just my opinion….love ya, M.A.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment mike leach

    A very important and honest reminder. Thoughts are powerful but not magic. The best way through life is to live. Life giveth and life taketh away. Rumination leads to obssesive thinking. And obssesive thinking obstructs living. The man who sent you the e-mail says it just right. Thanks for sharing, Therese. We all love your posts.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment anonymous

    This is a wonderful post. I torture myself by obsessing about whether I have “mild, moderate or serious” depression… I’m still not sure.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bev Y

    Maybe it is a girl thing, trying to heal ones self, both mind and body.
    We try to take care of our adult children and our grand kids, too. But life is far different than when we were young Moms.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Julie B

    This is a generous reminder, and now a resource for me, to guide behavioral health staff, in being mindful that “mindfulness and the like” are not appropriate go to resources for individuals coping with severe depression, and generally ends up being counterproductive. Thank you for sharing the compelling illustrations of your experiences!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bern

    OMGosh! I had my appendix out more than 25 years ago and I can’t imagine going through that agony for 2 datys! Bless you and bless David for getting help!

    As for “fixing it myself,” boy can I relate.
    And also am related: my mom (84) recently had a lumpectomy. Mom asked a “girlfriend” who had the procedure maybe 20 years ago if the pain she felt a few days later was normal. Oh yes, said the girlfriend it’ll hurt for a long time. So, Mom figures, I just have to put up with it. No problem. No word to anybody else. Only when the staph infection literally burst did Mom hie herself back to the surgeon for 2 rounds of truly awful super-antiobiotics. Mom’s fine now–except for recovering from a hairline shoulder break sustained from a fall while walking to a taxi three weeks after said surgery as she decided to go out, unaccompanied, no word to anyone because she was going “stir crazy” and besides, she needed to go to the bank.)

    On the other side of me is my not-quite-10-year-old with ASD who also has inherited this tendency to self-fix/self-blame (if he isn’t blaming everybody else, that is.) Don’t know which is worse . . . but we’re working on both!

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