How does an anxious person learn to trust their instincts?
November 25, 2012 10:10 PM   Subscribe

What are some good hacks for figuring out whether my feelings in a given situation are a result of unhealthy anxiety or healthy intuition?

GAD sufferer here. Most of the time, I have a good balance of being able to rely on my intuition and think through things logically, but when I get anxious or stressed it all tends to get confused, especially in situations involving other people / relationships.

I know that just because you *feel* something strongly doesn't necessarily make it a reality; also that there's a difference between intuiting an issue and catastrophising it, but I still have trouble over analysing this.

Also - I tend to literally "feel" anxiety in my gut, especially when I'm anxious or something's not right, so tuning into my body is tricky (but advice on doing that would be welcome.)

I've read lots of good advice here about learning how to trust your gut and the difference between intuition and wishful thinking and I'd love to get your thoughts on how I can tell if it's my my anxiety or my gut talking!
posted by rockpaperdynamite to Human Relations (12 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as someone who has a mix of really good and really bad intuition, external resources have been of great benefit to me. Why does intuition have to be something you deal with alone? Have a relationship with someone you trust that you can bounce ideas off of. Journaling can help you notice your own situational patterns, and help you avoid pitfalls and make breakthroughs. Meditating is a form of stepping out of one's self. Add to that some good old fashioned experience, plus the acceptance that you're just going to do the best you can do at any given time and life isn't some kind of trial, and you're probably having a better day than most.
posted by phaedon at 10:21 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I tend to have pretty good intuition. I don't trust it anyway. Or, to put it another way, I cautiously trust it, but check in to see if there is any evidence to support my intuition. And, if I keep feeling concerned about a project or a person, I don't commit to anything really in-depth, but instead start with small projects or little social events. If they behave in a way that is sketchy, my intuition is confirmed. If not, I build toward bigger projects or more significant social interactions. There very rarely in any hurry, and even with somebody you feel like you can trust, I find it is best to build big successes upon smaller successes.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:25 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've found "What would you tell a friend who came to you with that same thought?" to be a useful check-in that engages the logical brain a bit more as kind of a check on the gut feelings.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:29 PM on November 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

I now trust my intuition without questiion, where I used to doubt myself. I may be wrong about the particulars, but the overall is always spot-on. If your "gut" says "NO" - go with that, damn the subtleties.

You are always right. Really.
posted by jbenben at 10:38 PM on November 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I suffer from anxiety, but I find that instincts feel a little different-- deeper?-- than does my day to day anxiety response. When I can't tell the difference, I try to ask myself "What is the worst consequence of my choice to go along with this?" If the worst thing that can happen is just embarrassing, I ignore my instinct and do it anyway. If it's permanent damage, then I go with my instinct and don't do it. If I don't have time to fully assess the situation, or if the situation can't be assessed-- I go with the safest apparent choice.

When it comes to people and relationships, I just go with honesty. "I wanted to check in and make sure I wasn't bothering you when I blah blah blah." "Can I ask you if I was being weird when I was with so and so?" Many people feel awkward around others and often welcome the opportunity to get it out in the open-- more so than you might think.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:04 PM on November 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

You may find this recent question useful.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:13 PM on November 25, 2012

I think this is a great question and this is something I struggle with also. I'm very pro-CBT, sort of as a way of life, and I try to keep my perspectives positive. When I have anxiety, it's always a bit unclear if I should try to switch to an optimistic viewpoint, or if the anxiety should be heeded. (Sometimes it's obvious with strong gut feelings, but a lot of everyday anxiety falls into a confusing grey area for me.) I definitely struggle with which intuitions are true. Just from experience, a lot of times my intuitions are right and a lot of times they're wrong.

I think what you're up against is that there are a few different cognitive biases, and they skew reality in different directions. On one hand, there is wishful thinking. On the other hand, there can be pessimism or anxiety that distorts things the other way. Where is the reality?

A few hacks I myself use:

1) If end up being wrong or surprised about an intuition I had, I tend to journal it. For instance, if I am 100% sure that I sent an email to someone as a hail mary and that person is not going to reply, and instead they reply with something nice, I make a note of that. Or, if I am 100% sure that I'll go into a meeting and it'll be an easy negotiation and everyone will support me, and instead I'm up against a lot of resistance, I make a note of that too. If you tend to make mistakes in a lot of similar situations over time, it can be something to consciously correct for. Or if I notice myself having really strong expectations/intuitions that are a bit off the wall, sometimes I simply write those down and consider it a little experiment. It can be really useful to go back later and see when you were right and wrong.

2) I'm pretty aware that I am more pessimistic in the morning, and more optimistic at night. In the morning, my viewpoints tend to be aligned with whatever the most conservative rules of a situation are. At night, I'm more creative and can picture a lot of different scenarios, and tend to be in more open-minded and enthusiastic mode. (Indeed, sometimes I dread waking up in the morning because I know that whatever I was excited about the previous day might not be so awesome in the morning.) So, if there is an important decision to make, sometimes I'll be cognizant of this diurnal difference, and wait it out a few days until my morning viewpoint is the same as my evening viewpoint. That is a good self-check for me. (Note, there is some research that a lot of people follow this trend. E.g., people tend to use more racial stereotypes in the morning and consider people/situations more individually at night.)

3) Another hack, as mentioned, is to get outside advice. But you have to be careful on this, because how you word a question can influence what sorts of answers you get. You can be very biased in how you set up a story.

4) A hack I sometimes use when I'm confused is to write down a situation, and then reread it as if it is happening to someone else. Sometimes changing the genders/names can get you to consider a situation from a completely outsider perspective more easily. I occasionally put a photo of a real person, but who is not the person in my story, next to whatever I had written down. E.g., "What would Alice do here?" with a photo of Alice. This is a way to get outside your own biases, and little hacks like using a photo of someone else can make the effect stronger. This can be a way to get a clearer intuition about what is happening and notice whether you are being biased.

5) When intuitions are being wacky, it can be good to have a set of rules that you trust and can stick to. For instance, I actually made myself a list of things that equal a bad relationship and what I should do when I encounter each one. I made this list while single, so that later when I was high on oxytocin/luuhhrv I would have an objective reference. It ended up being useful -- normally the list reassured me that I was overreacting and I was actually safer than I feared. I also try to stick to some communication rules. Intuitions can be all over the place, but e.g. in a close friendship, if I've had a thought a gazillion times, I usually say it. That's one rule. Another rule is to not send a long email, ever. Things that lengthy should be said in person. Talking in person has so many advantages w.r.t. getting a good gut feeling about the truth. These are just my rules -- you might have your own rules. I find that some behavioral rules can help get me through confusing times when my intuition is all over the place.

I'd definitely be curious what hacks other people have...
posted by kellybird at 11:27 PM on November 25, 2012 [14 favorites]

I always try and work out if my anxiety is being triggered by something, before I decide it's intuition. So I have my internal anxiety list (is it loud, has someone unexpectedly touched me recently, is Nickleback playing, is that tree flowering, is it that tone of voice, am I hungry/thirsty/tired, are my glasses dirty) and if that checks out I listen to the intuition. Most of the time it is anxiety, or that internal process reveals the basis for the intuitive leap.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:40 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's interesting that you ask as a theory question and give no examples. Intuition isn't some sixth sense but results from subtle cues--details you haven't formulated, body language, background information, unrecognized similarities to past happenings. I would do my best to tease the causes of my anxiety out into the open. I'd try and make it explicit what cues are causing the feeling. This isn't easy and takes practice, but is a skill worth developing.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:32 AM on November 26, 2012

I ask myself questions:

Is this something I'm normally prone to anxiety about? If yes, then I take a big step back emotionally and I act as if it's my anxiety talking, unless it's a situation that has real and immediate potential danger.

So, if I suddenly get an intense and powerful "gut feeling" that someone at work hates me and wants me to leave and I should never come back, and actually they hate me because I am horrible and I am doing something wrong at this very moment, etc., I am not allowed to act on that. I have to act like everything's fine. Then, later, at home, I spend some time and logic trying to figure out whether it was intuition, anxiety, or irrelevant. However, if I'm on the bus late at night and I have a sudden gut feeling about a man on the bus being scary, I listen to it and take precautions to keep myself safe, like getting off at a different stop or whatever I feel I need to do.

Is there an action that I feel like I need to take right this moment, urgently? If yes, then it's probably not intuition, but panic. My intuitive urges will either indicate to me what is likely to happen, or will offer the idea of an action to take, or prompt me to take an action, but my intuition never, ever makes me feel urgently compelled to do anything, ever. Only my emotions do that.

I'll try to think of an example, but it's hard because I don't catologue these instances. I'll make one up. Let's say I'm at the store to buy cake as I do every week. I'll have a fleeting thought that I should, for example, buy pie this time instead of cake, though I don't like pie. I'll either ignore it or follow it, but whichever decision I make is probably made almost immediately and doesn't have much emotional intensity behind it.

Later, my friend who lives out of town calls to tell me she's unexpectedly in the city for a few hours and would love to get together at my place. I am so happy that I bought pie, because she loves it and I got her favourite kind. Or, I'm dissappointed that I bought cake like I always do instead of pie like my intuition told me. Sometimes I'll go back and forth over a decision because I'm not sure whether it's my intuition or not, but typically it just happens, and I either ignore it or not, and then it's over. It's rarely a big deal,(I think this is why it's called a "still small voice"), though it will sometimes be over something a lot more important that cake vs pie.

Is there a possible non-intuitive reason for my feeling, like prejudice, habit, conditioning, the weather, my physical state (not having eaten majorly fucks with my emotions, as does too much caffiene), or other stuff going on with me that I'm carrying around?

For example, I have an innate prejudice against people with certain disabilities. It's not right and it's not fair, but there are certain features that make me more likely to be afraid of or suspicious of a person. I have to allow for that initial reaction and get past it before I can know if I'm giving the person a fair shake.

I can't pretend to myself that this doesn't happen because then it'll subconciously fester and influence me. But if I can recognise it and say to myself: I know that I'm initially not trusting of X because X has a condition that makes me suspicious and uncomfortable. But what do I know about X otherwise?" What I know about X isn't neccessarily facts about them- it's what my intuition knows about them, too.

It works the other way around, too. If I find someone attractive, I'm more likely to trust and like them. I have to get past that in order to really hear what my intuition is telling me about who they are.

There's one final thing that I always try to remember; no matter how many explainations or reasons or possibilities that I can come up with, there's always at least one more that I cannot and will not ever think of. I don't have all of the answers, and I never will, and that's ok. It's not a life-or-death situation. It doesn't matter if I make a mistake.
posted by windykites at 9:27 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm with jbenben. I'm looking back on a lifetime of never having been wrong, except when I disbelieved myself.

I am very analytical too, though, which helps. You might want to try out The Five Whys. Why [would a rational adult do that?] [because he wanted x] [why would he want x?] etc.

At the end, though, if you still strongly suspect P even though the evidence seems to point to not-P, you should prepare for the possibility of P.
posted by tel3path at 3:48 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a few I use when I get anxious:

-Is this something I obsessed or worried about before (maybe years ago) and decided then was not a real actionable concern? If so, I should trust my past rational self and adopt his conclusion, at least provisionally unless there is actual new data that I'm not making up out of whole cloth in my head.

-Similarly, am I worried about something in the past which did not actually bother me at the time, or which I dealt with satisfactorily at the time? Such as, I worry about about having maybe done something unethical or offensive 10 years ago, but I do not recall being worried back when the event ocurred (and I've always been really sensitive to such things.) Again, I have to trust my rational past self.

-I know that when I'm experiencing GAD or something like it that the worries will be replaced by others as fast as I act on them. Therefore if I'm conflicted about acting on an anxious concern (Should I drive back and check that alley for a lost orphan? Should I call and apologize for something I might have done but can't recall?) I sometimes require an arbitrary frequency: I am only allowed to act on every third worry. Tomorrow it's every fifth. I am only allowed to imagine bad consequences for 40 seconds, then take a minute break, then back to the worry. After this goes on for a while it forces me to realize that if it were a real emergency then I would not be able to make those arbitrary rules.
posted by TreeRooster at 6:35 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

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