Jessica Leigh Lyons

We’re a culture that glorifies trusting your gut instinct and letting it guide you to freedom. Turns out you can’t actually “trust your gut” for everything. Unfortunately, there are a few times when your intuition might lead you to make a poor decision and for good reason. Our brains are wired to keep us safe and they’re not actually able to distinguish our rich inner emotional life. American culture and much of the West wants us to think that we’re capable of rationally moving through logical thought patterns to communicate with one another and navigate life decisions. Current research suggests our emotions actually dictate many of the choices we make, from the banal of what we are going to wear each morning to the larger choices about what work we want to do in our lifetime.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a stroke and spoke about it on the TED stage says, “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

Your gut instinct holds a lot of keys to navigating choices, but it might not be the keys that you think. We have to get better at tracking our body data to determine when to listen to that gut instinct and when in fact we’re experiencing a “biological feeling”. Here are 7 times to pause before you listen to your gut:

1. You have a huge presentation and in a moment of sheer panic, your gut says, “Don’t do it!”

What’s happening:

Most likely, you’re experiencing anxiety, but unfortunately, many of us don’t actually know how our anxiety comes up in the body. Here’s the thing, “anxiety” can  often be very similar to “excitement”, but we label “anxiety as “bad” and excitement as “good.” We’re trying to use our rational brains to understand the sensations that we experience in the body, so we label them. Often, anxiety is neither good nor bad, it’s how we judge it. Also, some anxiety can actually put is into a higher level of awareness and it can up our levels of focus and performance.

What to do instead:

Start tracking your anxiety when it comes to big projects. First, you have to track “anxiety’s” body data. Do you feel tingles or butterflies? Perhaps your belly gets tight or your shoulders contract. Recognize the sensations, like butterflies or sweating. As time goes on, you’ll start to understand whether your body data is telling you to actually stop or if this part of a larger pattern that might need some changing.  

2. You go through a break up and everything hurts so much that you can’t get out of bed. Gut instinct says to skip food. You’re just not hungry. 

What’s happening:

“Studies have found that the same areas in the brain that light up in imaging scans when we break a leg are activated when we split up with our mate. As part of a reaction to a breakup, our brain experiences the departure of an attachment figure in a similar way to that in which it registers physical pain” says Dr. Amir Levine and  Rachel Heller.

The Vagus nerve is carrying messages back and forth between our body and our brain. In the case of a breakup, our brain cannot distinguish between physical and emotional pain. What this means is that we actually experience heartbreak or gut-wrenching pain as something physical in our bodies. Our hearts and guts are sending messages of pain. This is another moment to trust the data that your body is sending you AND you still might need to make some choices to address the physical symptoms of an emotional response. Some folks aren’t hungry at all because the pain is too great. Others turn to food to ease the pain that they feel. However, your body needs nourishment to heal.

What to do:

This might be a time to make some conscious decisions about the food you are eating, making sure that it’s nourishing and enough. Your body needs to heal and it needs the proper nutrition in order to do so. Eat nourishing food. Recognize when enough is enough.    

3. You come home, tired from a long day at work and the garbage is overflowing, dishes from snacks are in the sink, and your partner walks in. They say “What’s for dinner, hon?” Gut instinct has you seeing red and as the hot rush of rage swoops over you, you snap.  

What’s happening:

You’re experiencing flooding and the rational/strategic part of your brain is actually shutting down. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a lead researcher on trauma resolution shared in an On Being episode that “Broca’s area, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them, shuts down. So when people become really upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears.” On the upside, the reason why you sputter makes sense. The thinking/strategic side of your brain is not active. On the downside, your gut instinct to rip into your partner is a survival instinct from fear and it needs at least 90 seconds and some deep breathing to realign.

What you can do:

Set a timer for 90 seconds. Dr. Jill’s research says that emotions live for about 90 seconds in the body. The reason that we feel them for longer is because our brains continue to run the story in our minds. This, in turn, causes the brain to send surges of emotional chemical release into our blood stream again. If we can pause for 90 seconds and breathe, the surges will move through our system. Spend time taking 20 deep, diaphragmatic or belly breaths.

4. You send your lover a text and you don’t hear back for four hours. Gut instinct has you in utter panic and hating that feeling you determine it’s time to end it.   

What's happening:

According to attachment theory if you are an anxious attacher, you might actually experience sheer panic of disconnection when you don’t hear from your lover. Your body is actually experiencing a lack of safety in connection.  We live in an instant gratification world these days with multiple ways of getting ahold of one another. We expect instant responses on email, Facebook, Instagram, and text message. We’re hyperconnected and sometimes in the hyperconnection, we also forget how to connect to our inner landscape. This does not help anxious attachers who need reassurance from their loved ones about their connection.

What you can do:

Practice labeling and naming your emotions. Read the book Attached and determine your attachment style. You can also take this quiz. The more you know about your attachment style and the behaviors that result from your attachment style the more that you’ll be able to identify partners that are a good match for you and work on effectively communicating your needs.

5. Your friend gets promoted and you are suddenly wildly flamingly jealous. Gut instinct has you trashing on her in your mind and you’re immediately awash in guilt.  

What’s happening:

Jealousy is what’s happening and it is a cocktail of guilt, shame, and sickening dread. Unfortunately, because we’ve mostly ingested lessons about how “good” people are “not jealous”, this is another emotion we try to swallow down. Yet, jealousy as a gut instinct can be wildly useful. Jealousy can actually be a guide post to what we are actually desiring in our lives.

What to do instead:

Instead of pushing away jealousy, try getting curious about it. If you can notice your jealous patterns, then you can actually make different choice the next time.  This might also give you evidence about what to do next. Do you want that raise? Awesome, then start putting together a plan to get there.

6. Every time you try to meditate or do savasana during yoga, gut instinct has you wanting to move, to get up, to run.

What’s really happening:

First, know that you’re not alone. Lots of people report feeling anxious and wanting to run during meditation or times when they are still. That’s because when we slow down or start to relax and take some deep breaths, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. This is the system that allows us to rest. It’s also in this state that our body can process emotion that we might have tried to bury.

As the adage goes, you’ve got to feel it to heal it. When you first begin sitting down in stillness, anything unprocessed is coming up to be felt and healed. Many of us were taught by the adults in our families to swallow our emotion. We learned that we weren’t really allowed to cry or get upset, so we swallowed it. In the professional world, there are few emotions outside of “fine” that are truly welcomed. That means we live in a smaller emotional spectrum of what is humanly possible.

What science is learning about emotion and the body is that our emotions are stored in our body, unless we process them out. This means that when you finally get a moment of quiet, a moment of safety, your parasympathetic nervous system says that it’s safe for you to feel your feelings. Things that are older start to come up, they bubble up. The anxiety you might be feeling is actually from all the tension from grad school or from your divorce and now you have to let it move through you.

Your gut is telling you that it’s unsafe, but that’s really just your body’s way of processing.

What to do instead:

It might be time to start understanding your undercurrent of anxiety as much as you can or are comfortable with. This is an another place where breathing can be wildly helpful. If you’re new to all of this body data tracking, use a sensation worksheet that can help you build language for some of the sensation that might be sweeping through your body.  In addition, this will help you build language in the Broca part of your brain so that you can start building bridges between the rational and the emotional brain. 

7. When you ask for a raise, and gut instinct feels a wave of nausea and wants you to back down.

What’s happening:

Go for the number that makes you a little bit green in the gills. I recently heard a story about a woman that was in boardroom discussions for her salary. She was going to pitch a number in the low 200s as her salary and it made her feel a little queasy. When salary came up, the board members threw out that they were thinking about a million. Well, she said she must have looked horrified. They immediately apologized and upped the number…  and they kept going. By the end, she felt ill and quite a bit faint. She called her husband to come and pick her up and sat on a bench trying to absorb what had just happened.

What to do instead:

We need about 40 percent new  things in order to move out of our zone of comfort to our learning zone, but more than 40 percent and we’re in a panic zone. Recognize that perhaps salary negotiation puts you into the panic zone or perhaps you are asking for much more than you have. In this case, do your homework, and  lean into that discomfort. Make sure that you practice negotiating with as many people as possible. The more that you practice, the more changes that your body has to digest the number and to get comfortable speaking about it out loud.

Do you ever have a gut feeling to do something, so you always go with your intuition and trust your gut? Has there ever been a time you didn't go with your gut feeling?


Jessica Leigh Lyons is a life coach residing in Minneapolis and all around personal development obsessed. When she’s not facilitating groups or working with clients one-on-one, she can be found running around Minneapolis parks, enjoying coffee at Spy House, or planning her next road trip in the great US outdoors.