How To Trust Your Intuition When You Are Anxious

Because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference

A close friend’s stepson spent all summer desperate for a pandemic puppy.

Because I am such a dog person, I became Jake’s go-to on the topic. He researched nearby breeders and was constantly sending me adorable pictures. Finally in late August, he got lucky when a breeder told him there was one puppy remaining in the litter, did he want it?

So Jake bought puppy toys and watched You Tube videos on potty training. He felt like he was prepared. He couldn’t wait for this little bundle of fur to join his home.

I drove with him to the breeders house. The breeder brought the puppy out for us and she was adorable. Small, floppy, snuggly, with that great puppy smell. We were both in love. I nestled her in my lap while Jake drove the hour home. Although my 8 year old dog, Rosie, is the best, I will admit I was a little jealous of that fresh bundle of fluff.

Thirty six hours later, Jake called me in a panic. He had to take the puppy out a few times last night to go to the bathroom and he was exhausted, he said. It was really hard to concentrate on work with the puppy in the house. Jake was freaking out.

I told him that a puppy is a big responsibility, to be sure. It will take a few days or even weeks to adjust to the new routine. She will have a lot of needs in the beginning, like all puppies, and it can be overwhelming in the beginning. But long term, it will be worth it. There is nothing like the love that a dog brings into your life.

We hung up, and an hour later Jake called me again. He was in front of the breeder’s house. About to return the puppy. He said his intuition was telling him that this wasn’t the right time to bring a dog into his life, and he had to listen to it.

It is possible that the responsibility of the puppy was more than Jake could manage at this point in his life. That is valid — he works a lot, and puppies need so much attention in the beginning. But from his breathless voice and the speed he returned to the breeder, I could tell that it wasn’t his intuition.

It was anxiety.

The difference between intuition and anxiety

Many of us have a “gut” understanding of our surroundings, or an experience, or an event. We don’t have concrete evidence, but we have a sense, an instinctive feeling. We call that intuition, and researchers have shown that intuition is real. Remmers, et al, 2018 tell us:

intuition [results] from a fast, associative, and experience-based cognitive process that leads to a “go” signal being strong enough to act on

It is a way that the brain uses past experiences and current events. It tell us the most rational circumstances or decision based on the information available.

Anxiety is, according to Zhang et al, 2020:

an anticipatory emotional response to threat and uncertainty that is not currently occurring… [and] it consumes cognitive resources

Anxiety gives us a vague feeling. It projects forward to what could go wrong, it fills in the blanks on an uncertain future. Anxiety tells us that one bad night with a puppy means you won’t sleep at all for the next 12–15 years. You’ll be so exhausted that you’ll do a horrible job at work and then you will get fired and possibly, become homeless.

It takes one data point and extrapolates out, on to infinity.

And it keeps you from tapping into any intuitive thoughts you might have.

Anxiety Blunts Intuition

In that paper by Remmers et al, the researchers induced a level of anxiety in some of the study participants. They compared the participant’s ability to perform an intuitive task to others with a positive or neutral mindset. This was their way to directly test the impact of anxiety on intuition. The study showed that

Anxious participants showed impaired intuitive performance compared to participants of the positive and neutral mood groups.

The paper found that layering anxiety on top of your intuition is like throwing a heavy blanket over what your intuition is trying to tell you.

In addition,

…anxious participants were not generally impaired in cognitively processing the task. Instead they showed a specific impairment in intuitive decision making.

So, anxiety doesn’t keep you from understanding what is going on. But it keeps you from using your intuition to decide what to do about it.

How to Separate Out Anxious Thoughts From Your Intuition

I believe that intuition and anxiety co-exist in most of us. But I don’t believe that you shouldn’t trust your intuition if you‘re feeling anxious. (Although the anxious mind certainly doesn’t want to trust anything beyond the wild tale that it is currently spinning.).

The key is to take a moment to separate out anxious thoughts from intuitive thoughts. Here are a few ways to do that.

Ask yourself, how does the thought feel in my body?

Intuition feels like a calm moment of clarity. It’s interesting; it invites curiosity. But if anything, a moment of intuition makes you feel better. Like you finally realized something and all the pieces fit together.

Anxiety feels like a humming in your chest, or in your stomach. It can make you breathe faster, or give you a headache. People experience the physical sensations of anxiety in different ways. But none of them feel calm and peaceful.

Intuition is about observation; anxiety demands action

When you are in touch with your intuition, there is no urgency. You have a feeling about what is right. You can decide to act on it (or not) when the timing makes sense.

Anxiety pushes you to make some action, to clear up the uncertainty immediately, to expell the bad feeling. The puppy needs to go back to the breeder within the next hour so that the bad feelings will go away. Anxiety asks you to crank open that steam valve and let out the energy around it. And sometimes it even propels you to make counter-intuitive decisions. Ever text an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend against your better judgement?

Does your mind believe other outcomes are possible?

When you have an intuition, you have a belief that something is true or might happen. You don’t always know how, when, or why. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to sweat the details right now. You just know what feels right.

Anxiety holds tight to one story, one outcome. The puppy will definitely ruin my whole life. The person didn’t text me back because they hate me. Anxiety allows no room for other outcomes or timelines or possibilities. If your mind won’t let you consider any other path but one, it’s likely anxiety coming to the forefront.

I’ll admit I was sad when Jake returned that puppy. In the hour between phone calls from him, I had decided that I would take the puppy myself if he felt it was too much responsibility for him.

I had a feeling, based on my experience with Rosie and all my past dogs, that this puppy would be a positive addition to our family. But that feeling didn’t compel me to race down to the breeders house and reclaim it before Jake could hand it back. It didn’t make me feel jittery or nauseated. It made me feel calm, happy, and excited.

When I found out it was too late, I didn’t beat myself up for not acting faster. I didn’t tell myself I would never find another puppy as good as that one. That I was doomed never to bring another dog into my life again.

The experience made me realize that our family might be ready for another dog. When the timing and circumstances are right. I dread the late nights and the potty training again, but sooner or later, I’ll have my own ball of fluff.

And that is my gut feeling, my intuition. I am in no rush. Because I know it is the right choice and all the pieces will fall into place. Click.

Neuroscience. Wall Street. C-Suite. Parent. Recovering Nervous Nelly.

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