Here’s what to do when your anxiety and your intuition are locked in a death battle.
Whether you’re trying to figure out if it’s time to call it quits with your long-term partner or contemplating a move across the country, the most common piece of advice you’ll receive is to “listen to your gut.” I’ve always found this piece of conventional wisdom to be fundamentally useless. Anytime I try turning to my intuition, I feel like I’m stuck in a tunnel and the call just isn’t going through. The tunnel, of course, is my overwhelming anxiety. How am I supposed to separate my gut from the sheer anxiety-induced terror my body experiences every time I’m considering a big life change?
A 2017 study published in the Association for Psychological Science confirmed that the anxious terror we feel when trying to make a big decision really does get in the way of our ability to connect with our guts. In the study, researchers found that “anxious participants showed impaired intuitive performance compared to participants of the positive and neutral mood groups.”
“Is intuitive decision-making simply not a possibility for those of us who experience anxiety? Not necessarily.”
“Intuition is a ‘subtle knowing,’ while anxiety ‘screams’ at us every time we try to step out of our comfort zone,” says Dr. Sharon Millen, a New York City-based psychologist whoadvises people on how to achieve their personal and professional goals. “Intuition leads to quiet wisdom and informed decision-making, while fear is loud and relentless, leading to a racing heart and a catastrophic mindset.” The trick, of course, is to figure out how to keep the loud anxiety from drowning out the subtle knowledge of your intuition. Here, three trained experts share how to do just that.
“There is a role for anxiety in that it makes us stop and think,” says Dr. Carly Snyder, a psychiatrist with a specialty in comprehensive reproductive psychiatry and women’s mental health services. “Sometimes we are too impulsive. All of us. And anxiety has the benefit of making us stop and think.” Before doing anything else, she recommends you take a second to question why the anxiety is there in the first place. Is something else going on, or is it really this particular situation that’s bringing you anxiety? If you’re feeling fine in every other realm of life and one decision suddenly brings this bout of anxiety, she explains that there’s a chance your reaction is your gut trying to tell you something.
“People often catastrophize,” says Liz Moore, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in private practice in San Francisco. For example, Moore points out that when an anxious person doesn’t get a job they wanted, there can be a tendency to say “I’m never gonna work again, I’m going to end up homeless on the streets.” When thoughts like that start clouding your judgment, Moore recommends flipping the script by reminding yourself: “Well, that’s not true. I had a job in the past. I’m making this an all-or-nothing kind of deal.”
A great tool to have on your side in the decision-making process is a clear understanding of what it is that you ultimately want. “Anxiety tends to rule decision-making by highlighting the negatives and what needs to be ‘avoided,’” Dr. Millen says. “In order to combat feelings of anxiety, lead with what you want, develop a plan to reach your goals, and pursue it.”
Once you’re getting closer to the point of actually making the decision, Moore advises doing your best to calm your body down. She suggests taking deep breaths and imagining that you are in your personal “happy place.”
Snyder suggests taking a quick walk around the block as another way of clearing your head. “There are few things in life that really need an answer this exact moment, so taking 10 minutes to step away and come back can really make a difference for our ability to process and make a more informed choice,” she says.
If you can find the time, squeezing in a workout can also do wonders for your mental state. “Exercise serves to release brain chemicals that enhance one’s mood and mental mindset, reduces fatigue and increases energy, and improves memory and overall brain functions,” Millen says.
If you’re still feeling unsure after calming your body, Snyder suggests you “write the pros and cons and go back and read it and decide what is driving your thought process—what’s the best move at this point?”
“Talk it out with someone,” says Snyder. “Decisions don’t have to be made alone.” If talking to your friends isn’t proving effective, seek out the help of a professional. “If anxiety is overwhelming in every aspect of your life or any one specific part, you don’t have to face it alone,” she reminds us. “There are various modalities of treatment that can be very beneficial.”
While there will inevitably still be a bit of anxiety present, Moore advises that once you’ve managed to get yourself to the calmest state possible, there’s one question you need to ask yourself:Does going in this direction feel like growth or does it feel like bondage?
Feeling anxious before making a life-altering decision is normal. But if it’s going to lead you towards growth, then it is the right decision. “Anytime we’re gonna grow, we’re gonna get anxious, we’re gonna hit resistance,” says Moore. “We can walk ourselves out of the anxiety a little bit more just by understanding that.” She encourages us to embrace the anxiety and remind ourselves: “This is how my change happens. This is how I make positive change in my life.”