How Anxiety Can Mess With Your ‘Gut Feeling’

It’s not that easy to ‘follow your gut feeling,’ when you’re trying to understand whether that inner voice is some sort of intuition speaking or just irrational thinking taking over. And as women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders, many might struggle to make sense of their instincts, worries and fears.

“Anxiety tries to dupe me into not trusting myself,” says Jenna Davies, a 31 year-old from South Wales. Last year she was offered a job she would have loved: “I was so full of excitement and good nerves but the second I hung up the phone after accepting the role, my good nerves turned to bad ones,” she remembers.

Her intuition was telling her to go for it, that she would regret passing on the opportunity, but at the same time she was immediately overcome with the stress and worry of commuting during rush hour and meeting new colleagues – two triggering situations, for her. “[Anxiety] convinced me I was an incompetent fool, so I phoned the company up and told them a family matter had come up, meaning I couldn’t commit to the post. I could physically feel the regret setting in before the call ended,” she admits.

 

“Everyone objectively questions their intuition”

 

Jenna still thinks about missing out on the job, to this day: “Everyone objectively questions their intuition and what it’s telling them, it’s natural and healthy but most importantly constructive and helpful when weighing up the pros and cons of what you feel in order to make a decision,” she explains. “[But] when anxiety kicks in, it takes those questions to extremes and converts them into both doubt and nerves, which in turn causes me to procrastinate and catastrophise the potential outcome of listening to my intuition.”

A study from last year shows that anxiety impairs intuitive decision making, and consultant clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew confirms that it will often have people thinking of the absolute worst case scenarios while also feeling very helpless and powerless. They might avoid things and situations that are potentially positive, affecting their quality of life.

“It’s very difficult and complex to try and differentiate between [gut feelings and anxiety] and certainly they do intersect,” doctor Andrew says. “For me, it would be about that automatic triggering of the fight, flight or freeze response which would then kick in, or a dissociation response, that would cause someone to move very quickly from feeling something to acting on it, as a way to protect themselves in a situation.”

If you’re questioning your judgement, she suggests it can be helpful to just talk it over with a friend, to get more of an outsider’s point of view. And specific kind of therapy, like CBT, would also be useful to identify and challenge anxious thinking and behaviours.

“I have spent a good deal of time learning about my anxiety both through therapy and my own writing – what situations I find distressing, how being overtired or stressed can exacerbate it, etcetera,” says Sabrina Greenberg-James, a 32-year-old Londoner with generalised anxiety disorder. This helps her understand more clearly and differentiate between situations where to follow intuition and those where it’s just anxiety making you scared of.

“I experience this regularly with my commute to work. My anxiety will tell me that I am not safe getting on the busy tube, that something terrible will happen to me. The heat, noise and claustrophobia all reinforce that this fear is justified,” Sabrina explains.

It can be exceptionally confusing to challenge an instinct that is supposed to protect us from a threat, but do not let it go unquestioned either, as doctor Andrews points out. “The first thing might be about noticing it: noticing where you’re feeling it in your body, or recognising what types of occasions might cause you to get [it], if there’s a pattern to it, you might try and identify and name it as an emotion,” she says. There’s no hard and fast rule, but try not to take it as factual and explore what it might be trying to tell you: “Especially, if you’re noticing that it’s a pattern that’s built upon a time, perhaps challenge that,” she adds.

 

Main shot: bruno van der kraan at unsplash

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