Intuition, hunch, deeper knowing, sixth sense, inner voice…no matter how you name it, we all have experienced that sudden feeling of insight without any conscious reasoning at least once in our lives. Under the right circumstances, the ‘gut feeling’ turns out to be a valuable tool when it comes to intuitive decision-making, as it allows us to stay true to ourselves.
Intuition can be a game-changer in our daily living and, yet, we often devalue this ability. The good news? Trusting your gut is a skill that can be strengthened with intentional practice.
The invisible thread
When was the last time you had the inexplicable certainty that something was wrong or right, without being able to tell exactly the reasons for your judgment? Do you recall the sensation? If you do, that is a perfect example of ‘gut feeling’.
The saying “trust your gut” means following the feelings of intuition when your body is trying to tell you something. Despite this may sound like a mysterious superpower, the concept that the gut and brain are closely connected has a deep neurological basis and is largely well-proven.
Numerous studies, from physiology to neuroscience research, have explored the sources of our gut instinct and its fundamental role in our lives.
The second brain
From a physiological perspective, the human gut is often referred to as the “second brain”. It possesses its own independent nervous system with more than 100 million neurons present in the digestive tract.
With this complex neural network, the second brain transmits messages from trillions of bacteria to the first brain via chemical messengers. This way it exerts a powerful influence over your emotional and decision-making responses.
As we keep repeating, mind and body are not separate. Rather they are part of a unique living system where what we feel in the body is the result of what happens in the brain and vice-versa.
Beyond the conscious mind
When you are about to make a decision, react, or move through a scenario instinctively, your brain works together with your gut to make a rapid assessment. As a perfect gear, the first brain compares your current experiences and incoming sensory responses with your memories, past learnings, personal needs, and knowledge. Then it tries to predict the wisest next move depending on the context.
The physical effects – such as the butterfly-in-the-belly feeling – occur when the brain has updated and (mis)matched the existing cognitive models (based on our prior experience), often triggering a fight or flight instinct. All of this is immediate and outside our conscious awareness. We really are incredible, aren’t we?
Gut feelings are therefore part of how we process information and events happening around us. Whether it is perceiving someone’s expression, considering a new opportunity, or evaluating a specific situation. Of course, the more experience you have on something, the more information the brain(s) will have to match the current experience correctly and lead you to deal with the situation as optimally as possible.
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‘Gut’ better at it
Practising our intuition skills is a long-term process and takes time. Many of us shy away from our instinctual responses as it feels safer to stay in control through logic and reason. However, gut instincts are incredibly useful when used in the right way.
Here are a few tips to get started and master this skill:
1. Check in with your body
The physical symptoms of your body trying to communicate with your mind are hard to avoid. How many times did you feel lightheaded when getting emotional or nauseous when feeling anxious? Maybe your hands become sweaty, your mouth gets dry, and your heartbeat starts racing.
Whatever reason, good or bad, these are reactions that we should acknowledge every time they show up. Check in with yourself, observe your physical sensations and pay attention to under what circumstances these feelings come and go.
What can you learn from these reactions? What is your gut telling you and how is it serving you? Understanding this can give you useful insights into yourself and others.
2. Start with small leaps
Find any good opportunity to practise your intuition, even with making minor decisions. Don’t put too much on the plate and play on little variables of risks.
Taking quick actions with small consequences makes you more comfortable in following your intuition and mitigates any potential overwhelming feelings derived from impulsive decisions. By starting small and looking for safe ways to test your gut, you can gradually increase your self-trust.
3. Keep track of your progress
Try to regularly document your gut responses and what events or situations trigger them. Keeping a journal, for instance, could be a helpful way to collect a full library of information about your reactions and your decision-making processes.
Write down the moment you perceive your gut feeling, how you reacted to that, how you acted on it and why. This can be a great way to identify any pattern in your behaviours and understand more about your mental processes.
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4. Challenge your bias
Trusting your gut can be useful on many occasions, but this does not make it the best go-to for all situations. It takes a good deal of self-awareness to decide which moments are appropriate to trust your gut. In fact, in some cases, your gut feeling could be an (inaccurate) reflection of your unconscious bias.
Becoming aware of those unconscious leanings can be hard, as they impact our behaviours without us realising it. Our brains process a huge amount of data that we unconsciously categorise and sort into patterns that feel familiar to us.
The pain point of this subconscious behaviour is that we tend to gravitate around people and thoughts that match our same views, and, in doing so, we create the potential for prejudice.
Understanding your own bias when following your intuition helps you make more open-minded decisions instead of staying fixed on your usual view of the world.
5. Dive into it
If something feels off, this is your call to press pause and carefully evaluate your actions. If you have the chance, take a moment to step back and find more evidence to support your decision-making process.
If you don’t feel like leaping on the spot, try to collect information that will help you better analyse the situation and minimise your risks. Positive outcomes will only encourage you to trust your gut more and more in the future.
Learning how to trust your gut is a fundamental tool to make decisions while staying true to yourself. And, like with any ability or skill, practice is what makes us really good at it.
Listening to your intuition is key to gaining its benefits. The more you train your listening, the more accurate – and useful! – these sensations become. Tune in with your body and pay attention to the slightest changes in your responses. When necessary, look back at what you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come.
And remember, as trusting your gut is not infallible, making a mistake only provides you with the precious opportunity to learn, grow, and try again.