Why and How You Should Trust Your Gut

e136b80929f71c3e81584d04ee44408be273e4d01db9164891f3_640_stomachIt 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

  1. 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!”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. Work on believing in yourself. Knowing yourself, valuing yourself and trusting yourself will help you value and trust the messages from your gut.
  3. 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 Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it leaves you disconnected from your feelings in adulthood, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

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.

Photo by apairandaspare


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azannie - September 2, 2016 Reply

I get the gut feeling two days before i return to work! Nothing can be done besides quit work and go homeless, right? I do go to work though because my brain has intervened. My job is new which means I’m in the middle of sorting my new coworkers into piles of ‘are they going to treat me bad’ or ‘I should keep my distance from this one’. Lousy way to live ones life.

Search for Meaning - June 17, 2016 Reply

Thanks for the article.
I have connected with you over your book recently and a copy is on the way.
The gut issue is central for me because I grew up in an area not well resourced, the family was away from the extended family links and my parents were not psychologically in tune generally. There was a loose connection with Christian faith which also had disconnected in moving away from our country of birth. Messages I got were that parents are right. Much as you followed your husband through the forest I followed my parents’ direction into life. I had a strong gut feeling at the point of leaving school about what I wanted to do but my father’s direction was otherwise. I followed the latter and have suffered as a result. The loose faith connection gave me the message that that was a good way to go. I get strength from faith and have stuck with it but spend a lot of energy untangling religious messages from gut messages. Even therapy available locally is limited and discovering your book is helping me to add to the work I need to do for myself with the therapist I have been using recently. Thanks again, I look forward to ongoing contact and to your book arriving.

Capt Tom Bunn - June 15, 2016 Reply

Jonice, I’m a big fan of yours. I’ve read one of your books. I’ve quoted you in the SOAR Fear of Flying Newsletter I send out (http://www.fearofflyingblog.com). But, I hope you will do some additional thinking about this essay.

Here’s the problem. Gut feelings come from the release of stress hormones by the amygdala. It has no ability to think. It does not know what is safe and unsafe. The way it served reptiles well. But it does not serve humans well. Why Because reptiles have no executive function. Humans have executive function and need to use it to take note of gut feelings but to override gut feelings if the cause of the stress hormone release can be determined to be no threat.

You write, “Your gut informs you when you’re making a mistake.” No. Absolutely not. The amygdala triggers a gut reaction (a.) when there is change. That produces a LOT of false alarms. It causes the urge to escape, and when there is no thinking part of the brain to say, “Hey. Wait. Let me check this out before running.” It is primitive.

The amygdala (b.) also reacts to s-shaped things on the ground; that’s good. Could be a snake. It reacts (c.) to the feeling of falling. That us OK unless you are in a plane that is in turbulence; then you get unnecessary gut reactions that you need to escape, and you can’t. Then the next step is to avoid flying.

In other words, your advice can lead to unhealthy, unwise, avoidance behavior. What you are recommending is that we give this 100 million year old, primitive, non-thinking part of the brain priority over all the gains made since then by evolution.

You also know that the amygdala reacts (d.) based on trauma. It can continue to give a gut reaction today to a trauma years ago. Therapy often cannot fix that. Either the person must tough it out or turn to avoidance behavior. Or, in the case of fear of flying, train the mind to release oxytocin every few minutes when flying so as to keep the amygdala inhibited.

    Jonice Webb PhD - June 15, 2016 Reply

    Hi Captain Tom, thank you for reading my book, for quoting me in your newsletter, and for your message. I take your point about the risks of giving the gut too much power. My intention in this article is NOT to say “Obey your gut, no matter what it says.” I am, however, encouraging people, especially those with CEN, to listen to what their gut is saying also. I’ve seen that CEN folks tend to over-rely on their brains, and ignore messages from their bodies. Decisions are best made when both sources are taken into account, especially in light of new research which shows that the relationship between brain and gut is far more complex and multi-directional than we ever knew before. Again thanks for your support of my work and for you thoughtful comment.

      Capt Tom Bunn - June 15, 2016 Reply

      Got it. Thanks. I was concerned that a person who really needs to push outside their comfort zone might us the advice to justify avoidant behavior.

Little Drummer Boy - June 14, 2016 Reply

I thought this was called intuition, our innate “pattern” library, aka built in bullshit detector built up over those gazillions of years of survival and development…Kinda handy when you meet politicians and see another miracle cure, which requires a “presentation” Er no, something ancestral within me says avoid all slithery things……Mine works very well providing, I’m listening and not talking, happy and not depressed, and there are no female “little fingers” in the vicinity…lol

NJR - June 13, 2016 Reply

Good story and advice. Are you still married to the same man? 🙂

    Jonice Webb PhD - June 13, 2016 Reply

    Yes I am, and happily! It’s the only mistake he’s ever made 🙂

IC - June 12, 2016 Reply

thank you Jonice for this insightful and astute comment of brain and gut connection. It is difficult for some that i work with to accept this..somehow it appeals to those open to hearing it at the right time…

1960mph - June 12, 2016 Reply

I have always been aware of my gut feelings but what baffles me is the fact that I choose to rationalize them away. This has cost me a lot in the way of peace and serenity. It’s like I have been trying to live a lie my whole life. Does that make sense to anyone?

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