Your instincts can save your life

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The quirky urge. A funny tingle. That little voice in your head. These are your gut feelings talking. But what are they telling you, and should you listen? Here’s how to make the most of your own innate wisdom.

Most of us have experienced the sense of knowing things before we know them, even if we can’t explain how. You hesitate at a green light and miss getting hit by a speeding truck. You decide on a whim to break your no-blind-dates policy and wind up meeting your life partner. You have a hunch that you should invest in a little online startup and it becomes Google.

If only you could tap into those insights more often, right? Turns out you can, especially if you learn to identify which signals to focus on — whether they’re sweaty palms, a funny feeling in your stomach, or a sudden and inexplicable certainty that something is up.


According to many researchers, intuition is far more material than it seems. Hope College social psychologist David Myers, PhD, explains that the intuitive right brain is almost always “reading” your surroundings, even when your conscious left brain is otherwise engaged. The body can register this information while the conscious mind remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on.

Another theory suggests you can “feel” approaching events specifically because of your dopamine neurons. “The jitters of dopamine help keep track of reality, alerting us to those subtle patterns that we can’t consciously detect,” Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin, 2009) notes.

So how do you choose which gut feelings to trust? Judith Orloff, PhD, a Los Angeles–based intuitive psychiatrist and author of Second Sight (Three Rivers Press, 2010), suggests that it’s a matter of “combining the linear mind and intuition,” and striking the right balance between gut instinct and rational thinking. Once you’ve noticed an intuitive hit, she says, you can engage your rational mind to weigh your choices and decide how best to act on them.

To that end, here are five gut feelings that Orloff and other experts recommend you pay attention to — and some reasons why you’ll be glad you did.


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1. “Something feels wrong in my body.”

Listening to your body’s subtle signals is a critical part of exercising your intuitive sense, says Orloff, who also trains UCLA medical students and psychiatric residents to use intuition when treating patients.

“Your body is a powerful intuitive communicator,” she explains in Second Sight. “Intuition allows you to get the first warning signs when anything is off in your body so that you can address it. If you have a gut feeling about your body — that something is toxic, weak or ‘off’ — listen to it. Go and get it worked up.” She’s seen too many people ignore their sense that something isn’t right with their bodies, and subsequently find that small problems have become big ones.

Physical symptoms can also have symbolic value. “If you’re around somebody and your energy goes down, that’s an intuition not to ignore,” Orloff says. Sudden sleepiness can mean that you’re in the presence of an energy-draining person or circumstance; it can be your body’s way of communicating that these conditions are taking more energy than they give. If you stay in a situation that makes you feel instantly depleted (like taking a job after you left the interview feeling exhausted), it can easily lead to a situation where you become depressed, anxious and — not surprisingly — stuck.

Ronald A. Alexander, PhD, a psychologist, mindfulness expert, leadership consultant, and director of the Open Mind Training Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., also recommends paying close attention to any sudden physical sensations you experience during the course of an interaction. He tells a story of traveling in India where he decided not to get in a cab because of a “burning sensation” in his gut, and he later saw the driver being arrested in the train station for suspected robbery. He says he typically feels intuitions in his chest or his stomach; the latter is relatively common given that the intestines house the enteric nervous system, sometimes called the “second brain.”

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A Decision-Making Guide Choose a situation in which you’re wavering between two choices. You’re going to give your body a chance to help you discover the right option for you. Sitting in a place where you won’t be disturbed, take a moment to settle in and put your mind on the issue you want to explore. Then, choose one side—for example, “I want to move for my new job.” Think about that and notice what happens in your gut. Do you feel a tightening, a gripping? Softening, spaciousness, warmth? Are the sensations pleasant or unpleasant? Now notice your thoughts about the move—are they generally positive or negative? Give yourself some time to feel your gut and mind responding. Now shift to the other side of the issue—”I don’t want to move for my new job.” As before, notice how your gut is feeling and what kind of thoughts well up. You may not get a definite answer at first, but if you come back to your body with the question a number of times, you’ll likely develop a solid gut sense of which decision is right for you. 2. A Danger Radar Your gut feelings can tell you quickly and clearly whether a person or situation is good or bad for you, but you may need some help tuning in. Remember a time when you came away from an encounter not feeling great about it, or yourself, but with no real clarity about why. Notice what happens in your body now when you think about that experience. Check in with your gut first, then your shoulders, arms, legs, and any other part of your body that calls your awareness. Are you tense or relaxed? Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? Take some time to let your physical sensations register, and notice what they tell you about the person or situation, and about how you were affected. For example, you might sense a knotting in your stomach, a tightening in your throat, or simply that your body isn’t feeling good—and you’ll notice that response when someone’s saying something sarcastic to you or not following through with a promise. There may also be times when your gut is screaming at you that something is wrong but it’s actually responding to a trauma or stress in the past. That’s because the present situation is acting as a trigger. The gift from the gut here is that you have an opportunity to become more aware of and resolve—an old issue that may be getting in your way today. As you move through the day, practice being physically aware and notice how your body reacts to people and situations. If you begin to be uncomfortable when you thought everything was okay, this is important information. You don’t have to act on it right away, but you will know more about how you really feel than you did before. 3. A Stress Detector Your gut is a brilliant barometer of stress. This exercise is simple: Just allow your focus to settle deep within your abdomen. Is your gut quiet or active? Open or clenched? Soft or tense? Spacious or tight? If you’re tight, gripped, or clenched, you’re probably dealing with some kind of stress. Ask yourself: What could I imagine right now that would help me feel better? Maybe it’s visualizing walking on a beautiful beach, eating at your favorite restaurant, or relaxing at a spa. You might want to just sit still and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Whatever comes to mind, take a few moments to let yourself go with the thought, bringing in an awareness of colors, shapes, textures, smells, temperature—all the qualities that make the experience alive for you. You’ll know you’ve brought your stress level down when your gut becomes warm, spacious, soft, or quiet, or conveys some other comfortable sensation. As with all skills, learning to listen to—and trust—your gut may take practice, but over time you’ll discover a valuable and reliable guide. Read more:

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