Your gut instincts are those nagging feelings that alert you to potentially dangerous situations, or let you know when something may go wrong. These feelings are what keep you safe in dark parking garages, and what steer you towards good choices. But the problem is, it can often be difficult to tell the difference between intuition and anxiety.
"When you are prone to anxiety, both mental and physical, the problem is that you really can't 'trust your gut,'" Melissa Weinberg, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Open Lines Counseling, tells Bustle. "The difference between anxiety symptoms and gut reactions becomes very blurry." And symptoms can feel one in the same.
What feels like intuition — a thought that won't go away, butterflies in your stomach, etc. — might actually be anxiety. And vice versa. "If you struggle with anxiety, your gut is overactive and often interpreting benign external information, internal sensations, or passing thoughts as threats," Weinberg says. But the good news is, it is possible to weed through the murky waters, and figure out what's what.
By talking with a therapist, for example, you can start to gather tools to better cope with anxiety, so it no longer gets in the way of your intuition. Here are a few things to keep in mind, so you can be better able to tell the difference.
1Anxiety Doesn't Let Up
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a gut instinct and anxiety is by how long your symptoms last. "A gut instinct is often a reaction to an immediate situation," Weinberg says. "Anxiety, on the other hand, might be present regardless of its relevance to your current experience."
Take that dark parking garage, for instance. If you experience a desire to run quickly to your car, that might be your gut instinct guiding you away from danger. But if you feel that level of anxiety all day long, well, it's probably anxiety.
2Anxiety Causes You To Worry About The Future
Anxiety tends to be future-focused in a very unhealthy way. So if "your head is swarming with hypotheticals and worst case scenarios," it's likely not your gut instinct, Weinberg says.
Anxiety symptoms might even keep you up at night, as you think ahead to work projects, worry about your health, or wonder about the future of your relationship. Unlike intuition, anxiety likes to zero in on things you can't control (AKA, the future).
3Anxiety Causes Feelings Of Uncertainty
While both anxiety and intuition can create an unsettled feeling, anxiety will likely lead to more uncertainty — while instincts will feel more concrete.
"Your gut is your internal wisdom," clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Odessky, tells Bustle. "You may be afraid to act on it but it feels certain, very much unlike anxiety which feels like uncertainty."
That's why, if you're waffling back and forth and can't decide what to do, you can rest assured whatever's on your mind is likely anxiety-fueled.
4Anxiety Interferes With Everyday Life
Unlike gut instincts, anxiety doesn't have any redeeming qualities. And it may even start to negatively impact your life. So take note if you are starting to avoid certain situations, or can't seem to function in a healthy way.
"When our 'intuition' or 'gut instinct' starts to interfere with how we’re handling life, it can be an indication that we are struggling with anxiety," therapist Marinelle Reynolds, LCSW, tells Bustle.
A gut instinct may steer you away from an unsafe situation, but anxiety might steer you away from most situations. And when that's the case, you'll no longer be able to tell what's worth worrying about.
5Anxiety Causes Many Prolonged Symptoms
It really can help to look at the actual definition of anxiety, in order to figure out what's causing your stressful feelings, especially if they're sticking around.
"The DSM-V (the diagnostic manual mental health professionals use to diagnose disorders, including anxiety) outlines the specific symptoms of general anxiety, which include: excessive worry and anxiety, difficulty controlling the worry, and physical symptoms related to the anxiety, such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and difficulty with sleep," therapist Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT tells Bustle.
It may be helpful to speak with a therapist, if you are experiencing these symptoms, since they can help you find ways to cope. Once you begin to heal yourself of anxiety, you'll be able to better tune into your intuition.
6Gut Instincts Can Be Tested & Verified
One of the nice things about gut instincts is that they can be "easily tested," Weinberg says. "Anxious worry cannot." So if you want to tell which is which, look to your surroundings for some concrete evidence.
"For example, if you have a 'gut instinct' that your basement is leaking during a storm, you can verify this easily with a visit to the basement," she says. If your basement is full of water, go ahead and thank your gut for tipping you off that something was wrong.
If, however, "you are worried about the structure and safety of your house and can't stop thinking about when something might break or if the basement will flood next time it rains, these are doubts and uncertainties that fall under the umbrella of anxiety — not immediate danger," Weinberg says. "They are fueled by uncertainty and have no knowable answers."
7Gut Instincts Are Based In Patterns
"[A] gut instinct is how we feel 'right now.' It’s based on a highly evolved project survival strategy based in pattern recognition," Spencer Coursen, a threat management expert, tells Bustle. "I stubbed my toe while walking in the kitchen. My gut instinct is that it might happen again. So now I am very careful about my step placement moving forward."
Compare this to anxiety. "Anxiety would be if I projected that singular occurrence into a future-based fear of walking because now I feel it’s not safe to walk," he says. See the difference?
8Gut Instincts Help Center You
Gut instincts often cause everything to slow down, as they direct you where you need to go. "There is a center of calm knowing with gut instinct, a certainty on a specific topic," Reiki Master and intuitive Stephanie Whitehead, tells Bustle. This is very unlike anxiety, which tends to cause chaotic, scattered thinking.
9Gut Instincts Often Have Solutions
When you have a gut instinct, it's often easy to solve whatever's bugging you: you can leave the dark parking garage, make a decision, or check your basement for flooding.
"To go with the previous example, if it is raining and you have a feeling that your basement is flooding, you can do something about that," Weinberg says. "But, if you are awake in the middle of the night worrying about how to make necessary improvements to your house [...] that might be a legitimate problem that impacts your life and needs a solution. But can you do something about it at 3 a.m.? Probably not. If something is truly wrong, there will be an immediate action that can be taken to address it. If the worry is not actionable, it is anxiety."
Even though it's not immediately fixable, you can certainly find ways to deal with anxiety by making healthy lifestyle changes, speaking with a therapist, and possibly even taking medication. Once you are able tone down anxiety symptoms, your gut instincts will be much clearer. And you'll have a much easier time telling the difference between the two.