Why we shouldn’t believe everything we think

Have you ever struggled to distinguish between a gut feeling and anxiety? We delve into why we confuse the two and hear expert advice on learning the difference. 

Your heart’s pounding and sweat fills your palms as you board the flight. Visions of extreme turbulence and the plane plummeting to the ground are flooding your mind, and taking a few steady breaths isn’t shifting it. You slide down into your seat with a twisted stomach and a sense of unease as you’re hit with another catastrophic thought. ‘It’s going to crash. I can feel it.’ 

Fast forward to three hours later and you’ve landed safely, without experiencing anything remotely comparable to your intrusive thoughts. The conclusion? You were just anxious.

The mix up between anxiety and a gut feeling is more common than you think, and it doesn’t just happen in the world of disaster and death. It can be applied to thinking your partner has cheated, panicking you’ve failed a test or even worrying about your health. So how we can we stop using our worst nightmares to predict our future? 

Psychologist and women’s mental health specialist, Ann Herman, explained that people often confuse the two due to them evoking similarly intense emotions and sensations. “Gut feelings and anxiety can both cause physical feelings, such as butterflies, a racing heart, sweating and feeling on edge, which makes it hard to distinguish between the two.

“It’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing anxiety, you’ll likely feel persistent worry, fear and irritability, whereas a gut feeling entails a strong, intuitive sense of clarity or knowing, which shouldn’t really be accompanied by panic.”

22-year-old Lily is guilty of mixing up the two, and ended up in a state of unnecessary panic where she felt consumed by her worries. “I had completely convinced myself that I was pregnant, even though multiple tests had come out negative. I was already anxious about the idea, since I’d had to take the morning after pill, so when I couldn’t shift the thought, I thought it must’ve been my body telling me something. 

“I was filled with so much worry and I couldn’t think about anything else. I definitely took the idea of it being a gut feeling too far and now realise that when these feelings come with a lot of concern, then it’s probably just my anxiety.”

Ann emphasised how confusing the two can have negative consequences and lead to hesitation or avoidance about important life decisions. “Mistaking anxious feelings for intuition might cause you to avoid pursuing a new relationship or an exciting career opportunity. Conversely, dismissing a gut feeling as anxiety can also pose risks to your safety, as your gut feeling may be alerting you of unseen risks or threats.”

Tackling this confusion may seem impossible, but Ann reassured us there are things we can do to combat it. “You can practice mindfulness techniques, like meditation or deep breathing, to connect with your inner self and figure out why you’re feeling this way.

“Engaging in self-reflection through journaling can also help clarify thoughts and bring understanding to intuitive signals. Therapy can be helpful to learn strategies for managing anxiety and also help you build trust with your intuition. All of these tips are key to feel able to make confident and authentic decisions.”

So next time you’re in a state of disarray, thinking you’re close to death, betrayal or failure, remember to take a step back and evaluate why you’re feeling this way. Our brains like to play tricks on us sometimes, so it’s important to utilise Ann’s tips and connect with what’s really going on. 

Expert insight: Ann Herman

Ann is a licensed psychotherapist and women’s mental health expert at a private practice. She works exclusively with adult women and explores the unique issues we often experience.