gut instinct
A hunch, an inner force or even a premonition — whatever you call it, your gut instinct is a powerful tool that can guide your actions, decisions and relationships. Here’s how to tune into yours and when to heed its call.

Have you ever felt a sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach when walking into a job interview? Or experienced a flash of clarity about a difficult decision? Perhaps you’ve noticed that fluttery feeling of butterflies on a first date, before you’ve barely exchanged a few words. If those scenarios sound familiar, no, you don’t have an acute Spidey sense. These are all signs of your gut instinct at play.

So, what exactly are these sudden sparks of intuition? “When people say ‘gut intuition’, what it generally refers to is a primal response to subconscious information, both positive and negative,” says Katie O’Donoghue, the resident relationship coach at The Indigo Project. “In a way, it is another survival instinct we have that can protect us and guide us in our decision making.” 

Essentially, a “gut feeling” is an ancient concept that mimics the instantaneous flight-or-fight system of our brains. Your sixth sense is an innate ability to understand a person, situation or environment without analytical reasoning, by building a bridge between the conscious and non-conscious parts of your mind.  

“Your gut instinct is something you feel in your body. You often hear people say they chose to do one thing over another because ‘it felt right’, or because something ‘felt off’, and this can be a sign they were using their intuition to guide them,” Katie explains. When your gut perceives a ‘dangerous’ situation, whether physically or emotionally, your bodily reactions can vary from an increased heart rate to sweating palms, tightened muscles or nausea. You’ll know your gut is knocking at your mental door when your reactions are both swift and physical — the two defining characteristics of intuition.

It’s no wonder we use the terms intuition and gut feeling interchangeably, because science has proven there is an undeniable connection between our brain and our belly, and it even has a name: the gut-brain axis. It refers to the bidirectional physical and chemical links between the two organs, which act as a highway for millions of nerves and neurons and influence our mood, emotions, digestion, health and — yes — intuition. That queasy feeling you get around a certain co-worker? It’s a valid reaction rooted in science, so tune into your body and give it the consideration it deserves.

Aside from the gut-brain axis, this inner force can often be a prediction based on stored past experiences. A snap judgement is more likely to be reliable in familiar situations, because your track record informs your intuition. If you have had a successful hunch about a big career move in the past, you will be more likely to trust those feelings in the future. The more you take note of your gut feelings and how the context unfolded, the stronger your instincts will grow. However, an irrelevant experience or unconscious bias could push you down the wrong perceptive path, while physical sensations connected to anxiety, emotional distress and illness sometimes masquerade as intuition. 

It’s vital to understand how to separate unrelated events or signs of anxiety by decoding when you should listen to your gut, and when you should ignore it. As a general rule, gut feelings are instant and pass quickly, while anxious thoughts fester and linger. Bear in mind that your instincts work best in conversation with a slower, more rational reflection.

“When it comes to listening to your gut instinct, it’s so important to remember that just because you have a ‘hunch’ or a ‘gut feeling’, it doesn’t mean you should trust it 100 per cent. There is an element of reason that is needed when it comes to making a choice in any aspect of your life — relationships, career or personal things,” Katie shares. “Your past experiences and emotions can lead you to make decisions that may not be the best for you in the present — your mind can play games with you, so you really need to develop a level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to be able to act on and trust your gut instinct.”

Katie says she’s tangoed with that gut instinct herself; “My gut feeling tends to show up when it comes to perceiving others. Due to my personal background, I have a heightened sense of awareness of my environment and understanding of how people change their behaviours even in the slightest of ways,” she says. “I admit that I didn’t always trust my gut instinct — I used to be very dependent on others for a version of reality after years of involvement in dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships. It’s only in more recent years I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice for guidance, and been able to separate my anxiety-induced gut reaction from my intuition.”


Your intuition toolkit

Katie shares her top four tips to help you decide when to trust your gut.


Tip 1: One way you can get a sense of trust is by understanding that your gut instinct tends to surface in specific situations, or when thinking of a certain person. Usually, you’ll reach a clear decision without any doubts when using your gut to guide you versus anxiety-induced gut instinct, which will leave you feeling uncertain, overthinking situations or doubtful of your choice.


Tip 2: Become aware of your cognitive biases and emotions, which may cloud your judgement when making a decision. The more self-aware you can become, the more reliable your gut instinct will be. 


Tip 3: Understand your needs, because this will help you use your intuitive knowledge and gut instinct in a way that serves you. Doing a little self-check-in when making a choice and really listening to your inner voice when it says “no” can help you develop more self-trust and confidence. 


Tip 4: Manage your stress and fears to avoid making rash decisions. One way to do this is by developing a morning routine to set the tone for a calm and collected day rather than in fight or flight mode from the get-go.


When I explore my own relationship with my intuition, it’s clear that we have a strong and trustworthy alliance. My gut sends me alarm bells about people I’ve just met, in sirens of certainty and echoes of dread. When I made a challenging decision to quit my easy-going role for an unexpected job offer that would catapult my career, a palpable rush of relief told me I’d made the right move. And in the presence of a new romantic partner, my stomach transforms into a tender whirlpool of happiness, peace and security — my favourite kind of butterflies. Call it my intuition, but I have a feeling I’m not the only one with this marvellous sixth sense.


Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, you’ll find her on the yoga mat, in a dance class or crafting inspiring stories. Find her on Instagram at @kaylawratten