Don't Let Stress Interfere With Gut Feelings

With the help of our resident psychiatrist, Samantha Boardman, making the right decision—even when you're anxious—just got easier.

Tired, stressed businesswoman at laptop with head in hands
Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch

Q: People always tell me to listen to my gut. Does this actually help when I’m feeling anxious?

Anxiety can impair the ability to make intuitive, or “gut,” decisions. While there is no agreed-upon definition in psychology, intuition is generally thought of as resulting from an unconscious and automatic process that leads to knowing something without knowing how you actually know it. Intuition can be a valuable tool. For example, athletes who rely on intuition make faster and better decisions than their more analytic counterparts.

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Related research shows that intuition is enhanced when people are in a good mood. But when you are anxious, the opposite is true. There are a number of possible reasons why an anxious state of mind interferes with intuition. A lack of self-confidence, a fear of failure, a pessimistic outlook, a narrow perspective, and a tendency to pay attention to irrelevant stimuli contribute to why it is hard to see the forest for the trees when you are filled with fear or uncertainty. Intuition can be an excellent guide, but only in the right context and when you are thinking clearly. As one Boston College researcher puts it, “The primary takeaway is, intuition is like nitroglycerin: It is best used only in certain circumstances.”

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Marie Claire.

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