“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10

That’s a command for all of us, but some of us find it easier to do than others.
I do a lot of neurotransmitter testing in my practice: urine testing for brain signaling chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, glycine, and glutamate. I used to simply feed the appropriate pathways with the precursors if they were low, and feed the enzymes for metabolism if one was too high, to try to balance things out. I still do that to an extent, but I’ve also started to recognize patterns. Sometimes a neurotransmitter test can suggest to me that someone is low in some of the cofactors (vitamins or minerals) for certain pathways. Other times, it can suggest that there’s a common genetic predisposition to metabolizing neurotransmitters in a particular way.

I also used to do a lot more genetic testing than I currently do (for a variety of reasons, though it can still be useful). Sometimes the genetics can tell me that someone will tend to make an excessive amount of a particular neurotransmitter, or that they don’t tend to make enough of it, or that they tend to break it down really fast, or break it down really slowly. That can help inform what I see on neurotransmitter testing, and how I might go about trying to maintain balance, once we’ve achieved it.

There are certain personality types, as well as patterns of thinking, that go along with patterns of neurotransmitters. Serotonin and dopamine tend to be an especially striking see-saw. Those with high (but not too high) serotonin tend to be very laid back and in the moment. Those with high (but not too high) dopamine tend to be very driven, always checking off their to-do list, and then moving straight on to the next thing.

Too much of either one, or too little of either one, can lead to a particular type of anxiety or depression. Those with excessively high (but more often excessively low) norepinephrine or epinephrine (together known as adrenaline) tend to be jumpy, and constantly in fight-or flight mode. Usually I see this pattern in people who have been stressed out for a long time.

Some of these patterns can be explained by the genetics, but it’s also true that neurotransmitters and thoughts are a “chicken-or-egg” scenario: which comes first? We all are familiar with the downward spiral of negative thinking: the more you do it, the harder it is to stop. I think this is why Paul told us to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ,” (2 Cor 10:5), and then to think on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Phil 4:8. We do have a choice–but our habitual thinking makes this easier or harder to do.

A few years ago I read a fascinating book called “The Molecule of More” by Daniel Lieberman. It fleshed out not so much the acute imbalances, but the personality types that go with certain patterns. Lieberman categorizes norepinephrine, along with serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, as “here and now,” or H&N neurotransmitters, meaning they help with enjoyment of the moment and satisfaction in one’s actual, current experience.

By contrast, the neurotransmitter dopamine is all about novelty and desire (it is the “Molecule of More,” as in always wanting more). The moment that a pleasure is no longer unexpected, or a goal is achieved, dopamine is quenched. The enjoyment associated with expected pleasures or enjoying what one already possesses requires the H&N neurotransmitters–and certain kinds of people are predisposed more toward one over the other. The highest achievers in history tended to be very dopamine dominant, with all its attendant benefits and pitfalls. They are constantly driven, and usually obsessed with achievement and efficiency–but this also means they are rarely “happy”, where happiness is defined by satisfaction with what they actually have. Many of them are more susceptible to affairs and divorce, because for them, it’s more about the thrill of the chase than the actual relationship. They often care for humanity in the abstract, but have little patience with individual people. But on the plus side, they also are quite resilient to adversity and change, since novelty produces the dopamine spike they crave.

On the flip side, those more predisposed genetically to the H&N neurotransmitters tend to be happier and more content, and to have stronger interpersonal relationships, but far less driven to achievement, and less resilient to the stress of change.

Lieberman doesn’t argue that either is “better” than the other per se; each has their own strengths and weaknesses (and he also makes the fascinating argument that one’s political leanings can often be affiliated with certain patterns of neurochemistry, too).

If you tend toward the H&N neurotransmitters, you’ll find it much easier to “be still and know” that He is God, but you might have a harder time seeking out and performing the good works that He has prepared for you to do (Eph 2:10). If this is you, you’ll probably do much better with accountability partners and little hacks to keep you motivated. (Another great book for building habits for success, particularly if you’re not otherwise inclined to do so, is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.)

If you tend more toward dopamine dominance, you’ll likely be an internally motivated high performer who accomplishes a great deal, but you’ll struggle to be satisfied with what you’ve achieved. (A great book that might help with this mentality is “The Gap and the Gain,” by Dan Sullivan and Dr Benjamin Hardy.) You’ll also likely find it much harder to meditate, and to stop and enjoy the moment–but you’re the type of personality that really needs to prioritize the habit of silence and stillness.

I prioritize it by setting a timer on my phone, and five minutes a day, I’ll close my eyes and picture myself at the beach with Jesus–sometimes meditating on verses, other times just being there, and bringing wandering thoughts back to the mental sound of the waves. I also tend to multitask–and I enjoy it, but I know it can go too far. I have to be intentional about choosing silence: running outside (when it’s not blisteringly hot) without headphones, so that I can pray instead. Sometimes completing rote tasks in silence, and choosing prayer and meditation.

Some more verses on this topic:

  • “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is stayed on You because he trusts in You,” Isaiah 26:3.
  • “I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.” Psalm 143:5
  • “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” Psalm 77:11-12
  • “My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.” Prov 4:20-22
  • “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” Psalm 1:1-3.