How can you tell the difference between intuition and anxiety?

There are some ideas that get really muddy for those of us with anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder. Two standouts are: “seeing things as signs”(e.g., you heard a song that reminded you of your ex and see that as a sign you’re meant to contact them) and “trusting your gut” or “going with your intuition.” 

The latter is particularly tricky, since so much popular advice relies on this. Who hasn’t been told this when they’re struggling to make a decision? 

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

Here are 3 ways to tell whether a feeling is anxiety or intuition.

1. Anxiety is a feeling that describes sensations. 

Those sensations come when the fight/flight/freeze/fawn system is activated. When we feel anxious, we often say our stomach is in knots, our heart is racing, our limbs may be tingling, our head may be buzzing, and our mouth may get dry.

When we’re tapping into our intuition, our threat detection system is not activated.

2. Anxiety feels urgent, important or frantic. 

This is when people fall prey to emotional reasoning, using emotions to guide their behavior (i.e., “This feels intense so I’m going to avoid going”). While this 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 situation. 

When we’re coming from our intuition, we feel calm and have a sense of “knowing.” 

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

When we react based on anxiety, we’re engaging in fear-based actions. We’re doing something to get rid of the anxious feelings. For instance, you go on a date, have a great time but haven’t heard from the person. You start to get anxious that they’re not going to call and may not be interested. If you text them, that could be a fear-based action to try and mitigate your anxiety and uncertainty

When we respond based on intuition, we generally feel at peace.

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

We cannot connect with our intuition through thinking. We feel our way into it. It may be impossible to do when you’re worrying. 

I know how to tell whether a feeling is anxiety or intuition. Now what?

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” could be anything you perceive with your 5 senses. 

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 and not to our feelings about the situation. 

If you’re connected to your intuition, notice what thoughts, feelings and sensations are present. Use these observations as data, not automatic directions for how to proceed. 

Is it impossible for anxious people to use their intuition? Absolutely not, especially if you know how to respond effectively to your anxious thoughts and feelings. Knowing the difference so you can discern what you’re experiencing is the first step.