Intuition or Anxiety?
As someone who has experienced debilitating anxiety in my life, I remember vividly being told by others to “trust my gut” and for a long time I did. How frustrating this was because my gut (which was actually my anxiety) led me down into some pretty awful times and dark places. Looking back, I needed to learn the difference between anxiety and intuition and thankfully, a psychologist was able to help me learn all about my anxiety, find strategies that helped me to calm it enough that I was able to get back to “functioning.” Unfortunately, it took a few too many years to learn that I needed to also redevelop my connection with my intuition. I spent a lot of time going around assuming everything was anxiety, and frankly that made things harder on me than it needed to be. So I am writing this article in the hope it provides some guidance to others who may be in a similar position as I was.
What’s the difference between intuition and anxiety?
Unfortunately for most of us who experience high levels of anxiety or have done in the past we can find ourselves unable to trust our intuition because we have so many trauma and anxiety-fuelled gut feelings and trusting those has often lead us into trouble (e.g., avoidance and withdrawal, unsubstantiated or warranted accusations, quitting due to fear of failure). So to start with let’s look at the definitions of intuition and anxiety…
Intuition – “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.”
Anxiety – “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”
– Oxford Dictionary
How can I tell the difference between my intuition and my anxiety?
So looking at these two different experiences in comparison to one another…
Anxiety comes from FEAR, often accompanied by physiological symptoms of anxiety in your body (e.g., shaking, breathlessness, sweating, or zoning out to name a few). Anxiety is more INTENSE and DEMANDING of our attention, usually our thoughts become focused on how to protect you from a FUTURE threat (perceived or real).
Intuition usually comes from a state of CALM, the complete opposite to how we feel when we are anxious. Intuition is more of a “KNOWING” than with anxiety where it often has conscious thought processes that are trying to figure something out. Our intuition is often focused on the PRESENT moment rather than the future or past. Our intuition may help guide us in decision making when reasoning and problem solving doesn’t seem to cut it. For example we may look at pros and cons and still not have a clear answer, our intuition may calmly lean us more one way than the other. Some believe that intuition comes from something greater than themselves. Depending on what that means to you whether that be God, the universe, or past lives etc. Whereas our anxiety is often a learned response based on an accumulation of fearful experiences across time.
What if it isn’t anxiety and it is my intuition telling me something is wrong?
It is difficult to navigate these, you are not alone. I think the biggest challenge in this process is that we have to be willing to loosen our need for certainty and have faith in our internal guidance system. It is my understanding that if the experience you are having is “worried about something being wrong”, we have to label that for what it is, and that is worry. Worry is a thought, thoughts are thoughts, they are not facts. So worry (and anxiety) look for certainty, because that FEELS safe and predictable. However, I don’t know if you are able to accurately predict the future but I feel it is probably safe to say that you can not, so it is actually a false sense. Soooo I treat those types of thoughts as I would any worry, I ask myself if there is something I can do (reasonably) to influence the outcome of whatever the situation is (e.g., if I am worried about failing a test, I can study), if I can do something I do it. If there isn’t anything that I can do to influence the outcome (e.g., I am worried that one day I will lose my mother, I can’t prevent her eventual passing), I thank my mind for trying to keep me safe, and I refocus on my actions to be in alignment with my values and goals, the life I want to live, the person I want to be (e.g., spend meaningful time with her in the present).
So how do we reconnect with our intuition?
One of the first steps I really feel is important is to make sure you have a good understanding and awareness of your anxiety so you can respond to it when it does come up and so that you can rule it out when it isn’t present. When it comes to our intuition, if you haven’t been using it for a while (if ever), you will need to work on building up that connection. Here are a couple of steps that have helped me in my journey to reconnect with intuition and learn to trust it again…
- Take a step back, find a peaceful spot on your own, and take a few deep breaths
- Gently question what thoughts are coming up regarding this decision or situation
- If your mind is loud (a sign of anxiety), thank your mind for all its ideas and analysis (it is only trying to help) & utilise breathing or grounding techniques to soothe your nervous system
- Place your hand on your heart to direct your attention to your heart, and gently wonder what your intuition “knows”
- Irrespective of whether she “knows” anything, I like to thank her for coming
- Then make a decision based on your heart rather than the fear driven chatter of anxiety in your head
I hope that this article has provided some guidance and tips as to what is the difference between intuition and anxiety.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgemental, compassionate approach, and particularly resonates with a social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.