Peace vs. Anxiety

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)

Peace:(Greek – Ειρηνη – pronounced eh-rey-ney):  It is often understood as harmony, concord, security, safety, prosperity, or felicity. It can also mean quietness or stillness.  In Hebrew the word for peace is Shalom ( שָׁלוֹם).  It is often associated with a greeting of hello or goodbye, but the term is much deeper. It can mean peaceand harmony, but it also means wholenessand completeness. Theologically, it can have a deeper significance.  It means to be enough.

The Habit of Peace 

Many of us are overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges in our lives.  Perhaps it is difficult to have time set apart to just relish.  Even if it is for three to five minutes, stopping and being able to reflect on the blessings of your life has a huge impact.  If we can stop even if briefly every day for a short time and remember our blessings, then the habit can stick.  We can start seeing more and more blessings around us.  It will help us to loosen up and enjoy.  Often it can be difficult to let in the good.  We can be preoccupied with all the things we feel obligated to do.

Peace involves allowing ourselves to experience and be in the present moment.  Walking, standing, breathing and seeing are all incredibly beautiful gifts.  To relish and enjoy the goodness of life is a treasure.  Every moment is loaded with opportunity.  

Relishing God’s goodness also involves resting in it.  Christ invites us to, “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  The Greek word used for “come” (δεῦτε) also means “follow” according to Strong’s Concordance.[i]  We are not simply invited to some place where we can hide from strife.  It would be nice to have a cozy place away from everything where we could be safe.  But it is in following Christ that we find safety, not from hiding from the hardships of the world.  Oswald Chambers describes this movement very similarly: “Once I press myself into action, I immediately begin to live.  Anything less is merely existing.  The moments I truly live are the moments when I act with my entire will…His word ‘come’ means to ‘act’.”[ii]  Rather than seeing rest in a removal from strife and hardship, we can see rest in our overall disposition.  We can relish our call to serve God in all that we do and all who we are.  No matter if we succeed or fail, we can relish and rest in our communion with God through the conviction in our hearts in serving the Way of Love.  This is an active movement, but does not have to be frenetic.  Being calm in our skin and being content with ourselves are active movements.  While it seems that there is a hurricane of tragedy going on around us in the world, if our heart is centered in Christ’s love then we can face the tragedy of the world in peace.  We can rest in Christ’s presence and invite others to rest in it as well.  We can invite them to be comfortable within their skin.  We can invite them to relish in God’s goodness.  This is not striving though is most certainly active.  It is a goodness that is so rich and wonderful that it speaks for itself.  When our disposition is toward relishing the good and resting in God’s peace, then it naturally draws others toward it.  It is an invitation by itself.  When others see and experience our peace, they are naturally drawn to it and naturally drawn to us.  They see in us what they desire most for themselves.  This is a rest and peace that we all hope and yearn for.

The Theology of Peace

To live in peace is to live in the knowledge that we are enough.  Because we are created in the image of God, we are enough.  Research has shown that when children are “encouraged to believe that their bad grades come from lack of effort rather than lack of intelligence, they show remarkable gains in both persistence and accomplishment.”[iii]  When we are told that we are valuable rather than intrinsically stupid, then we can grow.

God declares of all of us that we are beautifully and wonderfully made.  Those of us with chronic illness might struggle more with this declaration.  But it is true nonetheless.  Each one of us is enough.  We are invited by God to see our perfection even in our imperfection.  We can never be everything.  We can never have everything.  To chase after it is the illness.  Outside of God, where is peace?  Peace is fleeting outside of God.

The Neuroscience of Peace

While there are many ways to think about our peace, harmony, and feeling of wholeness, I would like to concentrate on three:

Mindfulness:Being enough is about accepting ourselves and being present in the moment.  There has been much research on mindfulness in past years. Mindfulness is the ability to bring your attention to the present.  It is often associated with being calm within our skin.  It involves being conscious and aware.  

Research has shown that meditation helps strengthen the default mode network (DMN). The DMN involves many areas of the brain as well as their interconnectivity.  When the mind wanders, we might excessively ruminate over past problems, have anxiety about the future, or daydream about some fantasy rather than engage reality.  Our mind will jump around like a monkey unless we can train it.  One way of training the mind is by relishing the good in our lives.  Reflecting on the good for at least thirty seconds will build and strengthen the neural pathway.  Neurons that fire together wire together.  When we are calm our cortisol level will go down.  Other signs of being calm are relaxed and toned muscles, warm hands and feet, and accessibility to the frontal cortex.  Being present rather than ruminating over past failures or anxiety of the future is a foundation of peace.  Being mindful draws us into the present.

Some Christians are quite apprehensive about meditation because it is associated with Buddhism.  The Bible is full of references to meditation.  There are many different ways to meditate.  We can meditate on God’s word.  We do not have to be Buddhist to practice meditation. But we can learn much from eastern styles of meditation and enjoy the benefits of practicing them.  These include concentration on the breath and body awareness.  

Meditation on compassion and the love of God has been shown to provide increased gamma brain waves.  This has been found in Carmelite nuns as well as Buddhist monks.[iv]  The four main types of brain wave patterns, from lowest to highest frequency, are delta, theta, alpha, and beta.  Delta waves are most present during sleep.  Theta more so when we are drowsy.  Alpha waves are present during relaxed thought, such as daydreaming. And beta waves can be seen when the brain is alert and concentrated.  Gamma waves are the highest frequency brain waves and are generally very shortly sustained in most minds.  Perhaps from a sudden insight or through the realization of a taste of a favorite food there will be spikes in gamma waves.  But research is showing that mindfulness and meditation, especially on compassion can alter the trait of our mind to be more enveloped by gamma waves.  Those who experience more gamma brain waves report feeling more “vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.”[v]  

Another way that mindfulness and meditation bring harmony to our bodies is through the insula. The insula is a part of the brain that helps bring awareness about our bodily organs.  If we become mindful of our bodies and organs through meditation, then our bodies will be more integrated with our brains. You can be better aware of an increased heart rate, tightness in your shoulders or other responses from your reactions.  More awareness will give you greater peace and harmony with yourself and your environment. Research has also shown that “higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.”[vi]  Because our emotions come with real physical sensations, it is no wonder that when we have a better awareness of our physical sensations, we will have a better awareness of our emotions.

Rest:  The tranquility of good sleep is something that should not be underrated.  Neither should we forget that naps and relaxation time are extremely important to our well-being.  These are things that primarily recharge and are vitally important to us. But I would like to concentrate on another aspect of rest that relates to peace.

True rest is relationship with God.  When we can rest in an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then we will grow in peace.  It is not about doing more or judging ourselves and others by how productive we are. Rest is about dwelling in a state of right being.  It is about relishing and embracing the way that we are neurologically hardwired.  Craving, addiction, anxiety, and all the other bad fruit that can habitually overrun our neurological make-up, will strip us of God’s peace.  When we live a life in and by all the fruit of the Spirit then we can live in peace. The neuroscientific basis of this is illustrated in many ways throughout these pages.  This book has many tools, resources, and means to help strengthen your relationship with God, but it is not helpful to get caught up in more busy-ness by them.  There are loads of excellent tools out there.  Richard Foster’s, Celebration of Disciplinehas many fantastic tools. Bishop Michael Curry’s Way of Love initiative has many practices that will draw us deeper into relationship with God.[vii]  No matter where we find tools to bring us closer to God, we can remember that it is about relationship and grace. As our lives become more and more of an expression of the fruit of the Spirit through love, joy, and peace, we will become more at home in ourselves.  We can rest in this relationship.  We can choose God’s grace.  We can avoid busy-ness and the tyranny of the urgent.  We can have peace.

AweThe amount of awe and wonder we have in our lives is largely proportional to our ability to be present and find peace.  Awe has amazing neurological effects for us.  It draws the mind to a greater sense of self, helps us think more creatively, is positive for our health, and draws us to be more collaborative and social.[viii]  Even the simplistic beauty of a blade of grass can draw us into awe at the wonder of creation.  Wonder is feeling excited by an encounter with the unexpected where beauty, truth or a greater sense of reality is found.[ix]  

We could all use more awe and wonder.  There are awe and wonder present in our bodies.  There are awe and wonder present in the vastness of space.  Children often teach me much about awe and wonder.  They find it in the simplest of things.  If we could find more awe and wonder in simple things like children, we would be so much richer!  Where do you find wonder and awe in your life?  Where could you find more?

The Neuroscience of Anxiety

            The word anxiety comes from the Latin angere meaning to choke or to squeeze.  Strangely, that is exactly what can happen in our brains when we feel under threat or danger. When we are relaxed and calm, more blood will go to the prefrontal cortex.  When our emotional response is disproportionate to the stimulus, this process is called an amygdala hijack.  The amygdala is responsible for the detection and response to threats.  Fear triggers the amygdala to send a distress signal to the hypothalamus.   In fear or anger, the hypothalamus sends corticotropin-releasing hormoneto the pituitary gland. The pituitary then sends adrenocorticotropic hormones to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone.  Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone.  It functions to metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates to quickly put us in survival mode.  The stress response allows for energy to be converted quickly.  The hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands make up this axis (the HPA axis).

Just think when you are stressed, what is going on in your body.  Your blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, and glucose is dumped into your system.  In fear, we get ready to fight or take flight.  Through excessive fear and anxiety, we can also freeze.  

If our default mode network (DMN) is not trained toward concentrating on the present and being consciously aware, then our minds might move toward ruminating over the past or on anxiety of the future.  We might regret or feel fearful about what we have done in the past.  We might gear up toward a fight or flight from some future activity.  In our anxiety, we will choke ourselves off from peace.  Children who are not taught by parents how to reframe and train their minds to return to a DMN of resilience may have much more difficulty throughout life when faced with stressful situations.

Even with the best teaching and nurturing from parents, traumatic situations can damage our systems of governing the stress response.  Through intense or prolonged traumatization, the ability to recognize or recover from threats can decrease.  We can even train our bodies to expect and be drawn toward trauma and increased anxiety.  To watch traumatic news day after day can be traumatizing.  Even more damaging is when traumatic news becomes sensationalized as if it is entertainment.

Intense anxiety over a long period can also damage the hippocampus.  The hippocampus helps the nervous system become calm.  Victims of trauma and abuse have been found to have shrunken hippocampi.  Through chronic stress, the hippocampus might become so affected that we can become confused about our own memories of what is real or unreal.[x]  

But villainizing fear and anxiety is not the best course.  Our amygdala gives us the ability to survive.  Unless we can label and recognize threats in the world, we would have no way to survive.  Knowing and labeling our fears can also have tremendous value in our healing.  Unless we understand and appreciate our most beloved treasures, as well as the weight of what it would be to lose them, we are not able to navigate the risks and opportunities of life.  

Our scripture reminds us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love”(1 John 4:18).  The word used in Greek here is(φόβος), pronounced phobos, meaning dread or terror.  It is where we get the word phobia.  After we survive threats and attacks, we can remember fearful situations.  We can hold in mind our fear, but not be overwhelmed by it.  We can calmly contextualize our memories where we were fearful through our executive function rather than the body being overwhelmed in the fear response.  In terror or extreme anxiety, we become overwhelmed by fear.  There is no terror or sense of punishment in love.  But to hold our past memories of fearful situations in mind while taking risks to walk in the Way of Love gives us even more appreciation for how precious love is.

Strengthening the Habit of Peace

Anthony De Mello, in his book, Sadhanahas an excellent tool for taking in the good of our lives.  Often when we have a peak experience, a moment of intense exhilaration or excitement, we are too busy to let ourselves truly appreciate it.  But each of us has moments in our lives where there has been something awe-inspiring.  Even if fleeting, these moments are profound and live with us.  The goal of this exercise is to return to those moments in our minds.  I invite you now to try this exercise.  

Picture in your mind and heart a time where you felt peace and joy.  Where are you?  Who are you with?  What is happening?  Take time to remember the details that gave you this joy.  What was your overall sense?  Stay with the scene. Where was God for you in this scene?  What was God doing?  What was God’s gift?  

After you have stayed with the scene and reveled in the joy and peace, take a moment to give God thanks for it.  The habit of returning to moments of profound peace and joy will help us remember and feel more deeply the peace and joy in every moment.  There is extraordinary peace in experiencing the wonder of what many would find simply ordinary.  Reveling in peace will also help us feel God’s presence.  Even five minutes of peace, reveling in the joy of fresh air and sunshine is a marvelous thing.  We can find peace in the majesty of even something as simple as a blade of grass. God has given us so much to be grateful for.  Even we who have lived through chronic pain, have much to revel on.  These are treasures in our minds and hearts to return to and cherish. The more we return to the gifts of our life, the more the habit of peace will grow.  The habit of taking in and relishing the good of life will also grow. We can rest in goodness.  We can find rest in the wonder and knowledge of the majesty and blessings of God.  

In chapter 9 of this book, you will find the Daily Examen prayer.  It will help you focus and relish on God’s gifts in your life each day.  It is an excellent tool to build the habit and neural pathways to more fully relish the peace and goodness of your life.

For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:

Try this:  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Think of a time when you most felt God’s peace.  If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind.  Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience.  Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of calm, tranquility, or safety wash over you?  Perhaps you feel embraced in God’s protection?  Where in your body do your feel these sensations?  Describe below how it feels in your body to abide in God’s peace. 

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You can do this exercise at the end of each day thinking of the time where you most felt God’s joy the previous day.

Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s peace working in and through your body?

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Try this with caution.  Do not retraumatize yourself.  If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory:  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Think of a time when you felt anxious.  If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind.  Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience.  After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels.  Perhaps you feel a sense of agitation, dread, restlessness, worry, nausea, or dizziness? Describe below how it feels in your body to feel anxious.

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What is one source of my anxiety?  What scripture, resources or tools from this book will help me overcome it?

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What one habit or settled tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community is stuck in a cycle of anxiety and what specific changes would create more systemic peace?

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What one specific and measurable goal to create more of God’s peace do I have that will help overcome an ingrained practice of anxiety at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to? 

Goal:____________________________________________

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~ Pray ~

God, I am Yours.  I say yes to peace.  

I will challenge and overcome my anxiety.           

 I surrender to Your peace.  I am enough.


[i]“Matthew 11:28,” Studylight, accessed November 8, 2019, https://www.studylight.org/desk/interlinear.cgi?ref=39011028.

[ii]“The Authority of Truth,” Utmost for His Highest, accessed November 11, 2019, https://utmost.org/the-authority-of-truth/.

[iii]Richard O’Conner, Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior, (New York: Plume, 2014), 29.

[iv]“EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, accessed August 21, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18721862.

[v]Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, Altered Traits, (New York: Avery, 2018), 233.

[vi]Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2010),80.

[vii]“The Way of Love,” The Episcopal Church, accessed August 30, 2019, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.

[viii]“Awe and Its Benefits,” Psychology Today, accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-awe/201704/the-emerging-science-awe-and-its-benefits.

[ix]Kelly Bulkeley, The Wondering Brain, (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3.

[x]Richard O’Conner, Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior, (New York: Plume, 2014), 27.