Why and How You Should Trust Your Gut
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
- That tight, pressured and unsettled feeling in your gut tells you when you’ve taken on too much in your life; when you’re over your head or unprepared for something important. It’s your body sending you a wake-up call that says, “Prepare!” “Slow down!” or “Take better care of yourself!”
- Your gut informs you when you’re making a mistake. You know that hesitant feeling you get in your belly when you’re about to do something? That’s your gut telling you to pause and consider. Your gut can stop you from making an impulsive error.
- Your gut can tell you when you’re angry. When your stomach feels tight and closed, like it’s pulled into a fist, that’s anger. Your belly is saying, “Take action.”
- Your gut can help you make decisions. Decisions should be made on two levels: half from your intellect (your thoughts and knowledge), and half from the feeling you have in your gut. When these two forces are working together, you’re primed to make the best possible decisions.
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
- You don’t trust yourself. Is it hard for you to imagine that your body can give you guidance? Or that the guidance your body offers could be accurate or grounding? This is a sign that you’re afraid to listen to the signals your gut is sending because you don’t believe in them.
- You are too focused on other people’s feelings and views to tune in to your own. This is typically a product of growing up in a family that gave you the message that your feelings aren’t important or valid (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Since you’re feelings in general aren’t valid, the ones coming from your gut aren’t valid.
- You greatly value thought over feeling. This value is partially a product of our culture, which tends to glorify intellectual achievement and skills, and which views emotions as unnecessary. If you believe that your feelings are a weakness (a loud and clear message of CEN), you are not likely to tune in to the feeling messages your gut is sending you.
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
- Knowing about it is a good start. Now that you know messages are coming from your gut, you can make a conscious effort to listen to them. Take the time to check your gut and ask yourself what it’s feeling and what it’s saying to you.
- Work on believing in yourself. Knowing yourself, valuing yourself and trusting yourself will help you value and trust the messages from your gut.
- Learn more about the value of your feelings in general. Some feelings originate in your belly, and others in your brain. These feelings are equally valuable and equally useful, and understanding why, and how to use them, is key.
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.