What Actually Happens When You Make a “Gut Decision"?
My partner of two years and I broke up recently. It was an extremely painful process that has led to extremely painful days, which I can only hope gets easier with time—that's what people say, right? Some of that pain came from how unsure we both were that it was the right thing to do. The thing was, I waffled constantly between the deep love I felt for him and the questions I had about our ability to grow together into the future.
Then one day, I was talking through my indecisiveness with my best friend who asked me, “Well, Kath, what does your gut say?”
And I had to respond with the truth: “I have no idea.”
I wasn’t used to listening to my gut. I didn’t have a good sense of what that would look like. I’m a logical, analytical person and while I consider myself to be pretty in tune with my emotions, I had no idea how to organize the writhing mass of conflicting feelings (i.e. love, hurt, hope, despair, etc., etc.) that had taken residence in my heart/stomach/general insides and boil them down to one message.
Our breakup didn’t wait for me to be sure. But in these weeks since, I haven’t been able to get my friend’s question out of my head. What does it mean to consider what your gut says? Are there actual physiological and/or psychological processes happening inside our bodies that allow our guts to “speak” to us? And if so, how could I learn to listen?
How to know when your gut instinct is talking to you
Imagine you’ve just gotten a job offer. What do you feel immediately after getting the news? Is it a knot growing in your stomach? Do you feel a sharp twist in your side? These feelings might indicate that your body’s answer to the question is a “no,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Heidi J. Dalzell. In contrast, if your gut feels fluid, expansive, grounded, or settled, that’s a clear “yes.”
“The gut is not only your microbiome, [which] plays a part in your nutritional health, but also your intuition, which is emotional,” says holistic health coach Hilary Russo. “To listen to your gut means to trust your instincts.”
Our instincts aren’t always right—we, unlike other animals, also have fairly evolved brains that add logical and analytical power to our decision-making resources and sometimes help us override our base instincts—but they provide vital input into the process.
And when it comes to major decisions like whether a new career opportunity is right for us or whether we see a long-term future with a partner, our intuition is especially important. “Paying attention to our gut can allow [us] to further avoid hurt, harm, or mistakes,” explains licensed psychologist Dr. Laura Louis.
When my friend started pressing me about my gut instinct, I honestly first wondered if I even had one. It turns out that I do, says child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi. Everyone does, though sometimes, our intuition can be hidden.
“The intuition is the interface between your consciousness and your subconscious,” says Magavi. “Things you’ve experienced as a child, all your memories and learning experiences assimilate over time and make you say, ‘Is this good for me or not?’ I really encourage people to be one with that feeling, even if parents dissuade them from doing it because that’s their way of becoming one with themselves.”
How the connection to our brain affects our instincts
Having a gut feeling or a sense of intuition isn’t just cluing into a mystical inner voice of spiritual wisdom.
The process of perceiving intuition starts with what’s going on in our brains. In any situation, our brains are picking up on information that we might not consciously think about, like someone’s facial expressions, pheromones, or “vibes,” explains psychotherapist and author Tina B. Tessina, PhD, aka “Dr. Romance.” “It gives us an impression we could not get on a rational level,” she says.
But how does that brain impression end up impacting our gut?
Well, our brain and digestive systems are linked.
Our autonomic nervous system gives us cues as to whether a particular situation is dangerous, concerning, or ill-advised, explains psychologist Dr. Michael G. Wetter. If that’s the case, our autonomic nervous system will activate our sympathetic nervous system, which is part of our “fight or flight response.” That then in turn automatically stops our digestive processes. A loss of appetite, bout of nausea, or a sense of tightness in the gut are the physical sensations that can result from that process.
Emotions and physical feelings are connected beyond our intuition, too. 90% of the serotonin—known as the “feel-good neurochemical” that helps regulate moods—produced in our bodies is made in our gastrointestinal lining, explains Magavi.
Magavi, who I cry to on the phone about my relationship in pursuit of reporting out this story, sees that a lot.
“I have people like you I see who just went through a breakup, the most painful time in their entire lives, and they come in telling me, ‘I’m having diarrhea, constipation, my stomach is hurting.’ You can feel emotional pain that manifests in your gut,” Magavi, who prioritizes gut health in her treatment of mental health issues because of the strong brain-gut link, explains.
That’s why people who struggle with anxiety and depression often also experience gastrointestinal issues and why people with chronic gastrointestinal problems tend to have more symptoms of anxiety and depression.
When it comes to the mind-body connection, says Magavi, anxiety, and sadness are usually felt in the gut, like with abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation, and anger is often experienced in the chest and extremities.
How to follow your gut instinct
My gut is too clouded with emotional pain to be able to hear my inner voice clearly right now. But that’s okay. But I know that the next time I have to make a major life decision, I want the signals coming from my gut to be easier to parse.
Not everyone feels that way, though. “Some people…are so accustomed to acquiescing, placating, or being fearful of the impact of their feelings that they push [them] down without even knowing what they are. [Others] get an inner sense of what they think, want, and would choose, but they have the same fear, so they don’t voice it,” says Dr. Elena Lister, a child and adult psychiatrist and faculty member at Columbia and Cornell Medical Centers. She advises that we start listening to our inner voices by understanding what about doing so makes us insecure. From there, she says, we need to “take incremental steps to trust ourselves and be willing to tolerate even less than ideal outcomes in the name of self-respect and learning by trying.”
To facilitate those incremental steps and that learning, try some of these expert-backed recommendations for connecting with and listening to your gut. A lot of these tips deal with coming to understand your body’s physical reactions as a way to access your intention and thus draw on principles and tools of techniques like mindfulness.
1. Try diaphragmatic breathing
Breathe deep enough that your whole diaphragm, or the muscle located between your lungs and your abdomen, expands, says Magavi. (Your belly should expand and your chest should not rise.) This will help keep you calm and allow you to register your emotional responses to situations.
“Use a starter phrase like ‘I feel’ or ‘I want’ and write it repeatedly until something else comes up and you go with that,” suggests holistic coach and author Suzanne Wylde. Do this for 10 minutes. The idea is that in writing freely, without expectations or explicit thoughts, new ideas and deeper feelings can come out.
3. Develop your “truth chord”
The goal of this process is to develop your internal reference guide to situations, and intuitive and shamanic practitioner Libby Brittain suggests starting by closing your eyes and telling yourself an absolute truth. (She uses “I have blue eyes.”) Then note how your body feels after saying that truth. Next, say a lie (“I have brown eyes”), pause, and note how you feel. “The more you practice, the stronger the shift will feel to you,” says Brittain, who notes that she first experienced her “truth chord” as an “uplifting flutter” in her heart for truths and nausea for lies and that she now feels it as “the same sort of feeling [as] when you write a word and recognize it’s spelled incorrectly.”
4. Meditate, meditate, meditate
Psychologist Ken Lewis suggests starting a contemplative practice or a meditation program to relax, clear away distractions, and bring your psychophysiology—or connection between your body and mind—back in harmony, which in turn, helps you be more receptive to the signals your body is sending.