7 Signs Your "Intuition" Is Really Anxiety

When to pay attention to that bad feeling in your gut.

Here's how to tell when your bad feeling about something is really just anxiety.
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It's often said that if you have a bad feeling about something, you should follow that intuition. But anyone with anxiety knows that's not so simple. Anxiety makes it harder to listen to your intuition, according to a recent study in Clinical Psychological Science. It also has a way of disguising itself as an "intuition" that something's very off, when really, all that's off are some chemicals in your brain.

"It can be challenging to determine whether a ‘bad feeling’ is a meaningful sign or if it’s anxiety," University of Virginia psychology professor Bethany Teachman tells Bustle. "This is especially difficult because the costs of not checking out whether the bad feeling is warranted can be significant.” One example? If you think someone has a suspicious package at the airport, says Teachman, the idea of not saying something and it turning out to be something dangerous is terrifying.

If you keep wondering, “Why do I feel like something is wrong?” it can be hard to ignore. That said, while not acting on a feeling that really is an intuition can be dangerous, paying attention to it when it's really just anxiety can lead you to live in fear. So, how do you tell the difference?

Here are some signs suggesting that a foreboding feeling is really your anxiety acting up rather than your intuition, according to experts.


It's Part Of A Pattern

If a situation's making you anxious, ask yourself if you tend to feel that way in this kind of situation a lot. This means you may have a general tendency to get anxious about this kind of thing, whether it merits it or not. "If you have routinely wondered whether you were having a heart attack when your heart races, and each time it has turned out to be anxiety, then that is useful information that you are a person who tends to have 'false alarms,'" says Teachman. "Alternatively, if it's your first time having a particular bad feeling, it may be more informative."


There's Another Explanation For Why Things Seem Off

Something may not really be wrong if you can think of another reason they seem wrong, says Teachman. For example, if you're afraid your heart is racing because you're about to have a heart attack, think of other reasons your heart might be racing. If you just ran up the stairs, that's probably a better explanation than the heart attack theory. In other words, take a moment to get to the root of how you’re feeling.


Your Fear Reflects Assumptions

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Ask yourself if you're jumping to any conclusions. "It can be helpful to reflect on whether biases that are part of our culture are influencing the bad feeling," says Teachman. Think about whether you'd still feel afraid if you didn't have preconceived notions.


You Get False Alarms A Lot

If you continuously get a bad feeling about something that then turns out fine, you may be dealing with anxiety, says Teachman. You might want to explore treatment options, like talking to a therapist, so that your anxiety quiets down enough for your intuition to be heard.


You Were Already Anxious

Life coach Madeleine Culbertson tells Bustle she recommends examining what you were thinking about before you got worried. If you were already worrying about something else, you could just have been in an anxious mood. It may be a good idea to reflect on the matter at hand when you're calmer and see if it still makes you anxious.


Anxiety Is The Only Emotion You're Feeling

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An intuition may make you feel uneasy about something, but it'll also give you a sense of inner peace and knowing, says Culbertson. You may feel like you're on the verge of getting into a bad situation, but the thought of getting out will cause you to relax. With anxiety, every possible course of action will fill you with doubts and questions.


You're Confused

An intuition will clear up confusion, while anxiety will just leave you more confused, according to Culbertson. If you feel at peace with a decision but then start to doubt it, the peaceful feeling is probably intuition and the doubting is anxiety.

If you still can't figure out the source of your foreboding feeling, try collecting more information and asking others for a reality check. Over time, as you start to notice patterns, distinguishing between intuition and anxiety will get easier.

Studies referenced:

Janiri, D. (2019). Shared Neural Phenotypes for Mood and Anxiety Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.3351

Trotman, G. (2019). Associations between heart rate, perceived heart rate, and anxiety during acute psychological stress. Anxiety, Stress & Coping.


Bethany Teachman, University of Virginia psychology professor

Madeleine Culbertson, life coach