How To Decipher Between A Gut Feeling & Anxiety

by Carina Wolff

When making a decision, it's hard to make a choice when you're torn about the pros and cons. During these moments, you might turn to your emotions, but sometimes it's hard to detect if there are signs you should follow your gut or just indicators that you're simply just scared of a decision because of anxiety. Our instincts are extremely powerful, but if you don't know how to read them, you might lead yourself down the wrong path.

"It is critical to be able to differentiate between fear and true unhappiness in order to experience fulfillment in your life," says Dr. Jennifer Gentile, Psy.D, M.M.H.S., a psychologist who treats patients virtually via telehealth app, LiveHealth Online, over email. "Going beyond your comfort zone allows you to grow and develop as a person. Although personal growth and development is good and important, this involves fear because you are venturing into the unknown. You need to be able to weed through the temporary discomfort so it does not control your life or interfere with your decision making. Overall, people tend to regret the things they didn’t do rather than regret the things they did do."

The more you get in touch with how you're feeling, the easier it will be to make decisions that benefit you in the present and in the long run. Here are five signs you should follow your gut vs five times you're just feeling anxiety.


It's Your Gut: You Feel At Peace


A decision that comes from your gut should not only give you a sense of relief, but a feeling that gives you lasting peace. "When we get a gut feeling, we are relieved that we have found an answer or solved a problem," says psychologist and life coach Jac Julien over email. "We feel lighter and more relaxed for not having to worry about it."


It's Your Gut: The Feeling Is More Subtle


Anxiety tends to be more loud and bullying, while gut feelings are more quiet. "They are a gentle nudge in the direction that feels right for our life," says Julien. "Gut feelings whisper the answer gently in your body trying to lead calmly, more like a parent soothing a child."


It's Your Gut: You Feel A Sense Of Direction


A gut decision should help you steer your life in a certain direction, not make you feel more lost. "Think to yourself, will going with your gut propel you on your course, or will it throw you off into a trajectory that may take months or even years to correct?" says life coach Jean Birckhead over email.


It's Your Gut: The Feeling Sticks


Anxiety tends to pass, but a gut feeling will stick with you over time. "If the idea keeps coming back to you, your gut may be telling you this is something you really want to do," says Gentile.


It's Your Gut: It's Rooted In The Presence


When experiencing an instinctual sensation, does it have to do with your life now or your life in the future? "Gut feelings are based in the present," says Julien. "They aren’t worried about what happened before or what will happen years down the line. Gut feelings are based on what you need to determine in the here and now."


It's Anxiety: You're Focused On The Worst-Case Scenario


Anxiety will blind you and not allow you to thinking through fairly all possible outcomes. "You likely need to see that most of the time, the more realistic situation happens, not the worst," says Paul DePompo, PsyD, ABPP, over email. "Over time you will see that you can cope even when the worst does occur."


It's Anxiety: Your Reasons Are Superficial


Anxiety drives you to make decisions based on irrational reasons. "If you find yourself coming up with reasons for not doing the tasks that are superficial, such as something taking too much time or you would miss a social event, it's anxiety," says Gentile.


It's Anxiety: You Feel Physical Sensations


"Anxiety starts in the mind wondering about the possibilities that can happen, and then it spreads to our body as racing heart, tightness, shortness of breath, or sweating," says Julien. "You may wind up feeling worse physically when you experience anxiety."


It's Anxiety: You're Avoiding Inconveniences


When anxiety comes into play, minor inconveniences suddenly become a big hurdle. "If the task involves something that is in line with your core values or goals, but may involve a temporary state of inconvenience or period of challenge, this may be an instance where you just need to push through," says Gentile.


It's Anxiety: You're Waiting For A Guarantee


If uncertainty is stopping you, it's almost always anxiety. "There is no crystal ball, and you will never get that certainty," says DePompo. "You may benefit from seeing you can cope, and that it is not that dangerous."