Have you ever been in the butterflies-in-your-stomach early phase of a new, emerging love? If so, then you can relate to my dear friend, who asked me for advice this week. She’s just beginning a new relationship and as love blossoms, she’s unsure of where it’s heading.
When I heard the questions on my friend’s mind, I wondered, is she tapping in to her intuition—a foreshadowing of disappointments to come? Or is she simply experiencing the mental feedback loop of fear? I realized my friend’s questions about her love life actually tap into a much broader question that applies to all facets of life (my friend’s and everyone else’s)…
How do I tell the difference between fear and intuition?
Fear and intuition are the gifts that allow us to navigate life. Like our internal GPS, they help us steer through the often murky journey of endless decisions we make each day. But they do it in different ways. Intuition can tell us “yes” or “no,” but fear only ever says “no.”
Intuition exists solely in the present moment, about the present moment. It is a quick flash from our subconscious mind which, if unrecognized or drowned out by logic or fear, can fade away as quickly as it came. It is sometimes strong, but more often gentle. It usually presents itself as a physical sensation (a “gut” feeling), vision or image, before words or concrete facts come into focus. It feels sure—until you doubt it (and that may be within a matter of seconds).
It’s easy to confuse fear for intuition because it can also come on quickly, be experienced physically, and feel sure. But there are some major differences. Fear isn’t subtle. It’s usually relentless, painful, cruel, repetitive, and full of details. Fear proves its point by referencing the past and projects a lot of its focus into the future. Fear feels bad, uncomfortable, and it activates the brain’s amygdala, which is a sensor of sorts that’s there in our brains to help keep us safe.
When the amygdala is activated, it gives us three response options: fight, flight, or freeze. To make sure we have all of the brain power we need to carry out this instinctual response, the amygdala limits activity in the prefrontal cortex—which happens to be where logical thought, clear decisions, and rational choices are generated.
We simply can’t do our best thinking and best problem-solving when we’re in a state of fear.
Fear also turns on the sympathetic nervous system—the body’s project manager for the fight-or-flight response—which releases hormones to pump us up for battle such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The sympathetic nervous system accelerates our heart rate, increases blood pressure, slows digestion, constricts our blood vessels, dilates the pupils, and can cause tunnel vision, shaking, and a number of other physical symptoms.
Ever notice when you’re in the grip of fear that you feel shaky, bloated, and anxious?
Fear is important; it’s designed to keep us safe. Our bodies have incredible systems in place that protect us, which is wonderful when we’re in danger. But for most of us, our fear is on overdrive—overriding our intuition and exaggerating the threat of danger. That’s okay, as long as you recognize it when that’s happening. The real problem is when we mistake our fear for intuition and then let it run the show. When fear leads, the journey continues, but the ride is bumpier and scarier.
So, how do you encourage that gentle, knowing wisdom of intuition to push past the clamoring, overeager desperation of fear? You get yourself into the receptive zone. You calm your amygdala physically with breath, exercise, sleep, healthy food, laughter, nature, meditation, or whatever else works for you.
Here are a few things that can work well:
1. Take deep breaths. Oxygen signals the amygdala that it’s safe to stop sounding the alarm. Even one minute of slow, deep breaths can calm an active amygdala and free up the prefrontal cortex. You can take deep breaths anywhere, anytime, all day long.
2. Choose optimism. Optimism decreases the stress hormone cortisol and calms the amygdala. Studies show that optimists are faster at solving problems, as well as more creative with their solutions. Luckily, optimism is a habit that can be learned. It starts with catching yourself dwelling on the negative and choosing a positive thought or response instead.
3. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Even in the midst of fear, gratitude is always an option. And the brain cannot be in a state or fear and gratitude at the same time. What are you grateful for today? Make a list, over and over. Gratitude is a powerful antidote for fear.
To pacify fear and juice up intuition, do the things that are unique to you that make you feel alive, beautiful, powerful, strong, wise, and safe. Maybe that means you write, dance around your house, or call one of your sisters.
Sometimes you have to peel away several layers of stress until you ease yourself into a receptive state. And then you ask again, when you’re feeling still inside. You ask for intuition to guide you. Fear may show right back up again, jockeying for its position in your mind. But you’ll be centered, and better poised to tell the difference.
Partially excerpted from The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness.