Gut Feelings: Exploring Why and How to Listen to Your Intuition - Humantold

Gut Feelings: Exploring Why and How to Listen to Your Intuition

Kimberly Jaso, MHC-LP July 14, 2023

Is trusting your gut backed by science?

At one point or another, we all face difficult decisions without clear answers, whether in matters of relationships, professional directions, or personal growth. When making such decisions, you might experience the age-old struggle between what seems rational and what your instincts are telling you. As therapists, we frequently witness this internal conflict unfold during sessions as clients weigh different courses of action. We can't always articulate the reasons behind our choices or explain our emotions, yet there is an undeniable sense of confidence when we intuitively know what we want to do.

Your "intuition," "gut instinct," or "inner voice" can serve as powerful tools for decision-making and developing emotional self-awareness. However, understanding the nature of gut feelings and accessing them can be challenging. Many of us struggle to attune ourselves to our instincts or have been conditioned to prioritize logic over feelings. Nevertheless, recent studies have shown the value of paying attention to emotional cues and striking a balance between gut feelings and the available evidence when making decisions. In this article, we will explore the latest scientific research on the brain-gut connection, make a case for trusting your gut, address the difficulties associated with responding to gut feelings, and offer strategies to better connect with your intuition going forward.

The science behind gut feelings

Scientists are still actively exploring the concept of intuition, which refers to our ability to understand something without conscious reasoning. They are also studying the mechanisms in the body and the brain that give rise to our experience of "gut" feelings.

Recent research focused on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that has long been associated with anxiety and depression. The development of theories surrounding the "brain-gut connection" in IBS has shed light on how the gut contributes to the brain's emotional processing. Functional imaging studies have revealed that information from the gut reaches brain regions that are relevant to emotion, affect, and cognition. It was discovered that the relationship between stress, anxiety, and gut problems in IBS patients is not unidirectional, as previously believed. Instead, the process occurs bidirectionally, with signals from the gut also impacting mental activity and influencing emotions. Consequently, it is argued that these gut feelings transmit signals that can influence our affect, beliefs, predictions, and decisions.

These signals, often referred to as "somatic markers" by scientists, hold significant importance despite being challenging to explain and access consciously. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, known for his research highlighting the pivotal role of emotions in social cognition and decision-making, elucidates that these somatic markers originate in the brain's insula. This region processes social-emotional cues, while the amygdala, responsible for our stress response, works in tandem with the insula to transmit messages conveying a sense of rightness or wrongness about a situation. Your brain and body collaborate to provide you with valuable insights based on your past experiences and the subconscious data you possess regarding a decision. These inputs can include your emotions toward someone, past life challenges, and more. They generate sensory triggers that manifest as conscious feelings of confidence or doubt. For instance, you might experience warm, tingly sensations, and a sense of solidity when your body signals contentment with a decision. On the other hand, knots in your stomach and an overwhelming sensory response may arise when your stress response is triggered, leading you to question a particular course of action.

The argument for trusting your gut feelings

If the science suggests that our brain is working in tandem with our body to access past learnings and experiences, as well as our emotions surrounding a decision, does that mean those gut feelings are worth listening to? Why should you trust what your gut is saying?

This, undoubtedly, has been an area of extensive debate and research. In recent years, there has been exploration of the advantages of being a highly-sensitive individual, particularly in the realm of business. Emotional intelligence is now recognized as a valuable asset for leadership and management, highlighting the significance of empathy, instinct, and emotion in decision-making, even in the presence of metrics and other logically defined markers. In the Harvard Business Review, Alden M. Hayashi delved into the approaches of various CEOs when it comes to intuitive decision-making in complex problem-solving scenarios, particularly when conventional logical methods like cost-benefit analysis prove insufficient. The consensus among these leaders was that as one progresses up the corporate ladder and encounters increasingly ambiguous situations with limited clarity on the best course of action, it becomes more valuable to have a leader who trusts their intuition or inner judgment. 

This intuitive guidance is likely informed by years of past experiences and their own emotional intelligence. All this tosay, there is a wisdom and strength that comes with relying on what you know to be true, even if you don’t fully understand why you know it. 

Why it can be challenging to understand gut geelings

The gut is a murky thing, and our feelings are not black and white. That’s why it can often feel easier to look at the clear logical markers you have when you need to make a decision. Other factors, too, can contribute to us having a difficult time tuning in to our intuition. 

For one, many of us struggle with understanding and knowing our emotions. As therapists, we frequently observe this struggle in counseling sessions when we ask clients the classic question, "How does that make you feel?" and receive logical explanations about their experiences instead of emotional labels. When probed further, individuals may respond, "I don't know how I feel," and require some time to sit with their sensations to discern what is happening in their bodies. We have often been conditioned to deflect or minimize our emotions, to the extent that engaging in the task of sitting with and exploring them can feel uncomfortable and difficult. It may even be perplexing as to why such an exercise would be worthwhile. However, being attuned to your emotions assists in comprehending your thought processes and behaviors, ultimately aiding in decision-making.

Neurodiverse individuals, in particular, may encounter challenges when it comes to recognizing bodily sensations. Interoception, a lesser-known sense that enables us to understand and perceive internal bodily cues, such as hunger or the palpitations associated with a stress response, can be challenging for individuals diagnosed with conditions like ADHD, autism, or sensory processing disorders. Consequently, attempting to inquire about one's gut feelings can prove incredibly difficult to decipher. Therapy, occupational therapy, and various exercises such as yoga, mindfulness, body scans, or breathing exercises can help in developing awareness and attunement to the body's sensations and understanding what it feels like to be in a balanced state or otherwise, including the corresponding emotions that accompany those states.

How to listen to your gut feelings

Beyond understanding your gut feelings, it can be difficult to actually listen to them when you’ve been taught to doubt them. Seeking the assistance of a therapist can prove beneficial in comprehending the reasons behind your struggles with either attuning to your gut or placing trust in it. Therapy enables you to explore and understand your emotions, as well as the past experiences that shape your thought patterns and behaviors. This process helps you develop a deeper perception and synthesis of information, including insights into your own emotions and the emotional realms of others. Ultimately, therapy supports you in building confidence to make decisions that align with your authentic self.

A few high-level tips to consider:

  1. Make space in your mind. Tapping into your emotional headspace can’t happen when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. Do what you need to allow your mind room to wander and make connections, such as jogging, journaling, meditating, or listening to music. There’s a reason many people say they do their best thinking in the shower when they are unplugged from other distractions. Therapy can provide that space as well to be fully present with your thoughts and emotions, even if for one hour per week.

  1. Identify your core values. We each have core values that represent what’s most important to us, whether that be family, autonomy, ambition, stability, etc., even if we’re not always clear on them. Effective decision-making happens when we’re in tune with our core values and make decisions that align with them. Exploring what’s most important to you is essentially tuning into your gut, pulling from past experiences and emotional learnings that have shaped you. When faced with a difficult choice, it often is best to go with the one that speaks to that core, so if you have difficulty deciding things, a barrier may be that you still need to explore and identify what is most important to you.

  1. Distinguish gut feeling from fear. Difficult emotions can arise when you need to make a decision, even if it’s the right one. Yet there’s a difference between discomfort that comes from “what I’m deciding is uncomfortable and scary,” and “what I’m deciding is wrong for me.” For example, you may know in your gut that you want to break up with someone, and it may not make logical sense and may also feel incredibly emotional and stressful, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. Understanding that distinction takes practice and self-awareness – and trusting it means growth.

Developing your intuition and ability to notice and rely on gut feelings takes work, yet it can be strengthened with intentional practice. While relying on your gut may feel less rational or effective than a more logical, evidence-based decision, trusting your gut is using evidence–evidence you’ve subconsciously gathered about how you feel about certain people or opportunities. Getting in tune with your gut, as difficult as it may be, is an important aspect of personal development so you may navigate life’s questions and challenges with greater confidence and clarity. 

Related Blogs

The Rising Cost Of Living: Why Has Self-Care Become A Luxury? 

Aubrey Dillane, MHC-LP April 11, 2024 Read More

Thriving in the City: Managing Noise and Busyness in NYC

Brianna Campbell, MHC-LP April 4, 2024 Read More

Navigating Drinking Culture in New York City

Lizzie O’Leary, MHC-LP, MSEd March 28, 2024 Read More

Overcoming Dating Struggles in New York City

Kirk Pineda March 21, 2024 Read More

Join Our Community: