As a society, we place quite a bit of importance on trusting our gut. Struggling with a big decision? Tune in to your gut. Not sure if the person you’re dating is “the one?” No worries, your gut will lead the way. While there are proven benefits of trusting gut feelings, in my experience as a person with anxiety, it’s hard to whether your intuition is doing the talking…or your anxiety. (Anyone else ever spent hours Googling symptoms, convincing yourself that you have a terminal disease, only to have the doctor break the news that it’s just a yeast infection? Or…just me?)
Alison Stone, LCSW, a holistic psychotherapist based in New York, says that while anxiety can indeed throw our instincts for a loop, we shouldn’t ignore it entirely. “Remember that anxiety is our brain’s way of scanning for possible threats or danger,” she says. “Anxiety often comes up when we consciously or unconsciously are searching for meaning in a certain event.”
Does that mean we should assume our brain’s anxious assessment is accurate? No way. “I like to think of anxiety as a reaction, not reality,” Stone says. “We are constantly reacting internally to what is being presented to us in the world, and anxiety is a common response to the stressors we encounter.” In other words, your anxiety is probably a reaction to something—but it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the situation you’re feeling anxious about. And that disconnect can put you way out of touch with your true “gut” instincts, so to speak.
So how can you get back in touch with your intuition when you struggle with anxiety? Start with these expert-approved steps.
1. Step away from common anxiety triggers.
This might seem obvious, but it’s essential if you want to reestablish a relationship with your intuition. “Anything that escalates your anxiety will bring you further away from your gut,” says Stone. “For some people that’s social media. For others, it’s the Internet—WebMD is a popular one.” (Guilty as charged.) Mood-altering substances can also affect a person’s anxiety levels. “Anything from alcohol and marijuana to coffee can bring you further from your instincts,” Stone adds.
Of course, cutting out the Internet and all recreational substances isn’t realistic for everyone. “For many people, being told to eliminate these things entirely is anxiety provoking in its own way. And that might not be necessary,” Stone says. She suggests playing around with reducing your use of things that make you anxious to find a happy medium (without becoming a Luddite). “For example, if you suspect that you feel anxious the day after you drink, experiment with reducing your alcohol intake and see if that helps,” she suggests. Or maybe experiment with using social media only on the weekends, if that’s something that triggers your anxiety. Once you have a real understanding of how these things are impacting you, you can make the changes you see fit.
2. Pause and ground yourself.
In our culture of go-go-go, we often forget about the importance of stopping. But this is especially important if you’re stuck in an anxiety cycle and can’t get a grip on the reality of the situation. The quickest way is through calming breaths, says psychotherapist Shira Myrow, LMFT.
“Notice where the anxiety is sitting in your body. Observe the places of tension, and try to soften them with deep breaths.” This will help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which shifts you out of flight-or-fight mode. When this happens, the anxious mind slows down and you’re able to create internal space to get a grip on what’s actually happening versus what your anxiety thinks is happening.
This doesn’t have to be a quick fix kind of situation, either—regularly incorporating grounding activities in your routine can help you carve out space every day to come back to your body and your true instincts, adds Myrow. She recommends yoga, meditation, or even listening to music.
3. Train yourself to listen to other stories.
Our brains are great storytellers, and they can get especially creative when we have anxiety. (“Everyone is in a conspiracy to hate me at this party!” “My partner hasn’t texted back because they decided to break things off without telling me!”) When you’re trying to get back in touch with your gut, naturopathic doctor Erica Matluck, ND, suggests taking pen to paper and writing down a different narrative from the one your anxiety is trying to feed you.
“If your mind is caught in a story of anticipation about the future, try writing down as many possibilities as you can think of and tell yourself a different story,” she suggests. “It doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. Its purpose is to become aware of how your mind is fueling your anxiety. Once the mind settles down and stops fixating on the worst case scenario, sit in meditation for 10 minutes and your instincts will be more clear.” Over time, this exercise can help you sift through what’s real and what’s less so.
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