Intuition vs. Anxiety: Difference Between Gut Feelings and Fear

Published July 12, 2022
woman staring out window lost in thought

Have you ever had a gut feeling? Your gut feelings are based on intuition. They feel like a physical manifestation of your instincts. Sometimes, those instincts can be protective and they serve you well. But if you get a sinking feeling often and it is not based on any real threat, you may be experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety and intuition share many similarities. For instance, both can be involved in decision-making. However, making decisions out of anxiety may not serve you well in the long run. On the other hand, intuition can help you maintain boundaries. But how can you tell the difference between the two?

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling of worry or fear. It's a normal human emotion that has been developed through evolution to keep people safe when there might be a potential threat. For example, the reason people become more alert when they hear a strange noise in a dark room is because the mind sends signals to let you know that whatever made that noise might not be safe. When the source of the sound is revealed and you know that you are safe, the feelings of anxiety typically subside.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Not every person experiences anxiety in the same way. Symptoms can vary from person to person depending on their specific personality, life experiences, and the type of anxiety they cope with. There are some symptoms that are often associated with anxiety, such as:

  • Constant thoughts and feelings of worry
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling restless or on-edge
  • Irritability
  • Stomach aches, headaches, and other body pains
  • Trouble concentrating

The symptoms that a person experiences do not have to be extreme. For example, some people that experience social anxiety blush, have an elevated heart rate, feel self-conscious, or struggle to make eye contact when put in social situations that trigger their anxiety. Just because you don't experience more severe symptoms doesn't mean that you aren't feeling anxious.

tired woman on sofa with stress and anxiety

Anxiety Disorders

Sometimes anxious feelings remain and are constantly present. When a person experiences constant thoughts of worry or rumination when there's no danger present, it is referred to as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can worsen over time and can interfere with a person's overall well-being and day-to-day life.

There are several different types of anxiety disorders. Their classifications are based on the situations/environments that cause a person to worry or feel anxious. Some different types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) - Excessive anxiety or worry about a range of topics, such as work or appearance, that are difficult to control.
  • Panic disorder - Continuous and unexpected experiences of panic attacks, accompanied by changes in social behavior and fear of the next panic attack.
  • Social anxiety disorder - Fear of social situations, such as talking to others or making eye contact, which causes a person distress and impacts their social behaviors.
  • Specific phobias - Characterized by a persistent and irrational fear of something, such as spiders or enclosed spaces, which causes high amounts of stress and avoidance behavior.

Different anxiety disorders can have different triggers and effects on a person's daily life. For example, a person with social anxiety might refrain from going to parties or family gatherings due to the fear of interacting with others. On the other hand, a person with panic disorder might avoid activities that cause their heart rate to increase, such as working out, since the physical sensations can be similar to panic attacks.

What Is Intuition?

Intuition can be described as knowing that something is true without having any real proof. For example, imagine your child has lost their homework. And, for some odd reason, you have an instinct that it might be in the laundry basket. When you check and discover that's where their homework is located, that's intuition.

Intuition can also be described as a hunch about a given situations that might steer you toward a certain decision. Some people refer to intuition as their internal compass or a gut feeling. People experience intuition without conscious reasoning. It's an insight that just arises in the mind and body that can be particularly hard to ignore.

People often believe that their intuition steers them in the right direction. If you have a bad feeling about a new partner or a new job, you may chalk those thoughts up to intuition when they don't seem to work out. Intuition can be a protective mechanism.

However, sensations and thoughts due to intuition can be very similar to the thoughts and sensations experienced during an episode of anxiety. If anxiety, rather than intuition, is guiding your behavior then you might be making decisions that don't serve your best interests. Luckily, there are a few ways to help distinguish between anxiety and intuition.

Intuition vs. Anxiety: Key Differences

It can be difficult to distinguish between intuition and anxiety for a few reasons. First, you can experience both of these feelings at the same time. For example, if you're in a difficult situation you may have a gut feeling that you should leave, and you may also be anxious about your safety at the same time.

Another reason why it's hard to tell the difference between intuition and anxiety is that they both cause similar sensations in the body. Intuition and anxiety can cause you to feel more alert, to notice when something feels off, or feel uncomfortable with a certain situation.

How can you tell if it is intuition or anxiety that is driving your decisions? There are a few ways to tell them apart.

Thought Patterns

When a person experiences intuition, it does not involve reasoning or active thinking. In fact, intuition arises without deliberate cognition. It's a gut feeling you have that makes your spidey sense tingle about a situation. This feeling in the pit of your stomach or thought that pops into your head can occur immediately and grow in intensity over time.

When a person experiences anxiety, it's often accompanied by constant thoughts of worry and rumination. A person actively thinks about a situation or event that causes them to feel anxious. These are called thought patterns that can create a distorted view of the world.

For example, a person with anxiety may constantly weigh the pros and cons of a situation. Or, they may focus on one specific detail or event that was upsetting to them. Then, they may view this element as a 'clue' or 'warning sign' after they have had time to think about the many different, and often negative, things it could mean.

Feelings and Emotions

Intuition can bring forward both good and bad feelings about people, events, and situations. For example, when you make a new friend at work, your intuition might tell you that this person is going to bring a lot of happiness into your life. Or, when you're on a first date that is going extremely well, your intuition might tell you that the person you're on a date with is 'the one.'

Anxiety is typically accompanied by negative emotions, such as feelings of dread, worry, and irritability. So thoughts or decisions that are motivated by anxiety tend to be negative in nature while those motivated by instinct can be negative or positive.

If you constantly experience negative thoughts or feelings you might want to take some time to evaluate them. Did they just arise out of nowhere, or did thought patterns turn them into worry? Do you ever have any positive feelings about new relationships or events, or do they all seem to be associated with more negative emotions?

Motivation

intuitive happy business woman at work

Intuition and anxiety often have different motivations. Intuition can help a person thrive and make good decisions for themselves. For example, if you see a job listing for a position that you're interested in, your intuition might push you to apply. You have insight that you are ready to take on a new challenge and try something that you've always wanted to.

Anxiety is often motivated by fear and the desire to keep ourselves safe. This applies to all kinds of situations. For example, anxiety might prevent you from walking dark streets alone at night out of fear for your safety. Or, anxiety might tell a person that they shouldn't continue to date someone because that person could potentially break their heart.

It's normal to want to keep yourself safe. And, in many cases, it's a good priority to have. However, if your anxiety (and not your intuition) is in charge of your decisions, you might miss out on amazing opportunities in the name of safety and comfort.

Intuition or Anxiety? Questions to Ask

You can use the differences between intuition and anxiety to create a mental checklist whenever you're wondering how to distinguish between the two. Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Do I feel like I have to protect myself? If so, why and from what?
  • Do I have thoughts about this certain situation constantly?
  • Do my thoughts seem to snowball into more negative and concerning ones?
  • Have I been thinking about the future or the past often?
  • Have I had this same thought/feeling before? If so, in what situation did they occur?
  • How do I feel in my body? Is my heart pounding or do I feel like I have butterflies?
  • How did I come up with my choice/solution? Did I think about it, talk about it with others, or just know?
  • Is this an opportunity I want to pursue? If so, what barriers are in my way?

Anxiety can cause events that are exciting, challenging, or that require vulnerability to seem like a threat. It may cause you to quit too soon or pass up potential oppotunities. Listen to your body and try to understand where your thoughts and feelings are coming from. You know yourself better than anyone else, which makes you the perfect person to know whether it's your gut talking or if it's anxiety.

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Intuition vs. Anxiety: Difference Between Gut Feelings and Fear