Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do You Struggle With Anxiety? Trusting the Gut Can Be Tricky

Learning to tell the difference between anxiety and intuition will guide you.

Key points

  • For people who struggle with worry and anxiety, trusting your gut can be really difficult.
  • Anxiety feels uncomfortable and urgent where intuition generally comes from ease.
  • It is possible for people with anxiety to learn to tap into their intuition.

Have you ever had a hard decision to make, and no matter what it was, you spent hours going over the pros and cons, wrestling with every contingency, and crowdsourcing opinions, only to grow more confused and uncertain? Until one day, you’re sitting at a stoplight, thinking about nothing, when the answer suddenly, magically appears. Your intuition took the reins, and thank goodness, you now know what your next step will be.

But then, overthinking steps back in, making you question whether it was really your intuition talking.

The distinction between anxiety and intuition can be awfully difficult to discern. For anxious people, two concepts that are challenging to differentiate are: “seeing things as signs,” a.k.a emotional reasoning (e.g., you heard a song that reminded you of your ex and see it as a sign that you’re meant to contact them) and “trusting your gut” (or “going with your intuition”).

The latter concept is particularly tricky since so much popular advice relies on it. Who among us hasn’t been told to “trust their gut” when struggling to make a decision?

If you’re like me and your stomach’s normal setting is “aflutter with butterflies,” it can be really easy to confuse anxiety for intuition.

Is it anxiety or intuition: Here are 3 ways to tell.

1. Do You Feel Distinct Sensations In Your Body?

Anxiety is a feeling characterized by distinct sensations.

Those sensations come when the fight/flight system is engaged. When anxious, we may feel somatically activated. That’s why we often say our stomach is in knots, our breath is shallow, our heart is racing, our limbs are tingling, or our head is buzzing.

When we’re tapping into our intuition, however, our threat detection system is not activated, so we may actually feel a sense of calm in the body.

2. Do You Feel Frantic?

Anxiety feels urgent and critically important. It causes people to fall prey to emotional reasoning, using emotions to guide behavior (e.g., “This feels intense, so I’m going to avoid going”). While this kind of reasoning makes for amazing reality TV (“I’ve never felt so strongly for someone after 20 minutes…sure, let’s get married!”), it can be problematic when it leads to reactive, impulsive decisions based on emotions, not the actual situation. When people speak haphazardly of “seeing signs” (e.g., every couple on Love is Blind who says “I love you” 2 hours after meeting someone), they’re using emotional reasoning.

When we’re coming from our intuition, on the other hand, we feel calm and have a deep sense of “knowing.” There’s not a sense of urgency.

3. Are You Making a Decision From a Place of Fear?

If you’re making a decision rooted in fear, it’s probably anxiety.

When we react from a place of anxiety, we’re engaging in fear-based actions. We’re doing something to get rid of the anxious feelings—something that, in the long run, will only make the anxious feelings stronger. For instance, you went on a date and had a great time, but still haven’t heard from the person 24 hours later. You start to get anxious, fearing that they may not be interested and aren’t going to call. To ease your anxiety, you text them.

But when we respond based on intuition, we generally feel at peace while doing so.

For people who struggle with anxiety, the phrase “just trust your gut” is a minefield, because the gut of an anxious person is generally full of adrenaline, which fills their head with catastrophic (and unlikely) outcomes.

We cannot connect with our intuition through thinking. Instead, we feel our way into it, which is nearly impossible to do when you’re worrying.

Now that I know how to tell the difference, what do I do?

Once you identify what you’re feeling, you can take the next best step.

If you’re anxious, practice orienting yourself in the “what is” versus the “what if.” Your “what is” is defined as anything you can perceive with your 5 senses. The key is to get out of the possibilities and into reality.

Another useful way to distinguish the “what is” from the “what if” is to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, list the objective facts of the situation. On the other side, list the meaning you draw from those facts. Ideally, we are responding to situations, not to our feelings about the situation.

Whenever you’re connected to your intuition, notice what thoughts, feelings and sensations are present. Use those observations merely as data, not an automatic direction for how to immediately proceed.

Is it possible for anxious people to effectively tap into their intuition? Absolutely, especially once you learn to tell the difference and can respond effectively to your anxiety. Knowing the difference so you can discern which you’re experiencing in any given moment is the first step.

More from Joanna Hardis LISW-S
More from Psychology Today
More from Joanna Hardis LISW-S
More from Psychology Today