Tag Archives: trust your gut

Why Trust Your Gut?

Why do we call it a gut feeling anyway? Probably because fear and anxiety are often felt in the stomach… knots, butterflies, nausea. And usually what we call a gut feeling is a sense that something is off or wrong about a situation, which causes at least some anxiety in one’s gut.

diagram of human torso/gut

We may feel it in our gut, but our ‘gut feelings’ don’t originate there.

But these gut feelings don’t originate in the gut. They originate in a tiny little section within a slightly larger section of the brain called the basal ganglia (I just threw that in there so you’d be impressed that I know the parts of the brain 😀 )

This little mechanism alerts us when something is out of kilter in our environment. For lack of a better term, I will call it the alert signal.



PET scan of a brain

A brain on high alert! This is where gut feelings really originate.

The most common example of the alert signal is that nagging feeling that we’ve forgotten something. This is, btw, one of the things that goes wrong in people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Their alert signal gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, so they almost always feel like something’s wrong. Then their mind goes looking for something wrong when there isn’t a real problem.

But unless you have OCD, when the alert signal kicks in, there is something wrong. It might be something as trivial as that item you thought about taking with you, and then the thought slipped out of your conscious awareness. But some part of your brain is remembering it and trying to say, “Hey, you meant to take that thingamajig with you!”

Or it may be something that your brain has picked up on unconsciously that indicates danger.

We like to think of our brains as this open container. Sure there’s information stored away in other compartments but what we’re actively thinking about is all front and center, right?

Wrong. There are parts of our brain that are constantly processing, interpreting, analyzing, emoting, etc. outside of our conscious awareness.

large boulder in road

rockfall on a mountainous road  (photo by Swen Dirk, Wien, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Suppose you are driving along a road in the mountains and you get a gut feeling that something’s wrong, but it’s a beautiful sunshiny day so you consciously decide your gut is nuts and ignore the signal. However, a part of your brain (most likely the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex) has registered a flicker of movement out of the corner of your eye and it has signaled another part of your brain (the amygdala, where fear and anger originate). That part is now screaming “Danger, danger!” at that little alert gizmo in the basal ganglia.

All this has happened way too fast for your conscious mind to process what is going on. By the time it does, you are already squashed like a bug under a rockfall.

Another example:  you are out on a first date. The guy (or gal) is quite charming and attentive and you’re consciously thinking, “Hmm, he (she) just might be a keeper.” But you’re getting this gut feeling that something is off. (Okay, I’m just gonna use the male pronoun from now on; too awkward otherwise, but don’t take it personally, guys.)

LISTEN UP! A part of your brain has noticed that he has a funny little twitch in his right eyebrow every time he says something nice, or that his tone is a little flat, even though his words are what you want to hear. That part of your brain triggers the alert signal. “Beware! This guy’s a lying creep!”

You start to feel like something is off, and you’re getting a little queasy. Don’t dismiss that as you ate some bad fish, or worse yet, mistake the butterflies in your stomach as excitement or love. (Ick!) Listen to your gut!

Now, I’m not suggesting you jump up, fling your drink in his face and stomp out of the restaurant, but be on guard. Get to know him a WHOLE LOT better before you let him into your house, much less into your heart. And don’t try to talk yourself into dismissing the gut feeling. You are having it for a reason. Until you identify that reason, be careful.

Think of that alert signal as your dog. My dog barks at anything that gets within twenty feet of my house. It may be the postman delivering a package to my front step, a cat that has had the audacity to invade our backyard or someone trying to break into the house. But it is always something. It’s her job to alert me that something is coming into our territory. It’s my job to determine what it is and whether or not it’s a big deal.

That niggling little gut feeling is your barking dog. Listen to it, figure out what it’s trying to tell you, just in case it’s someone trying to break into your house.

Have there been times when you’ve listen to your gut and it’s saved you from grief? Or other times you didn’t listen and wished you had?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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A Check-Up From the Neck Up (and Book Giveaway Announcement)

This is the last installment of my Tour of Fives, celebrating the release of the 5th book in my mystery series. I felt I should bring things back home with my Five Top Tips for Maintaining Mental Health. (This is a revised version of a post I wrote as a guest of Ginger Calem last year.)

When I was a psychotherapist, I realized that doing my job well meant that I worked myself out of a job. Eventually my clients didn’t need me anymore to boost their self-esteem and figure out how to stay on track mental-health-wise in their lives. A few would pop back now and then, when they needed a sounding board for some major life decision. But for the most part, I never heard from them again after they graduated from therapy.

One of my clients, however, had a different take on this. She came in about once a year or so for what she dubbed her “check up from the neck up.” Sometimes she had specific things to discuss but sometimes she just wanted to catch me up on her life and get my feedback.

(photo by safedom, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by safedom, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)

I realized this was a very healthy thing she was doing–checking things out with a professional before they became a big deal.

I can’t help but wonder why we don’t have mental health check-ups, like we do for our physical health. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we nipped our psychological problems in the bud, instead of waiting until they fester and make us miserable?

And more emphasis on preventive mental health practices would be an excellent idea as well. So here are:

My Five Top Tips for Maintaining Mental Health.

#1: Check in with yourself several times a day and notice how you’re feeling. Make it a habit that you link to something else in your routine, like mealtimes or driving to and from work. Just stop and take a few seconds to assess where you are emotionally.

I do this when I’m in the car by myself. Then if I realize I’m not completely content, I have some alone time to explore why not, and what I want to do about it.

There are three basic things we can do about something we don’t like. We can (1) change it; (2) get away from it; or (3) change our attitude toward it. This list may sound a bit oversimplified, but it gives us a good place to start to make proactive decisions about a situation that is keeping us from feeling content with our lives.

This ties in with…

#2: Avoid doing things you don’t like to do. Now I’m not advocating being irresponsible (nor procrastination, which tends to just spread out the stress). But when we don’t like something, instead of just forcing ourselves to do it, we can look for ways to make it more palatable.

I don’t like to exercise, but I know it’s a necessary evil. So I looked long and hard for a way to exercise that I didn’t mind, and I found it.

Zumba class! Yay!

Zumba class! Yay!

I love Zumba dancing! Now I’m not saying I jump up with joy when it’s time for Zumba class. I still face some inertia, but that’s a lot better than dread and loathing.

I dislike cleaning even more than exercise, but I discovered that if I do one or two chores every day or so–clean a toilet here, dust a room there–I always have a relatively clean house without spending a huge chunk of time on it.

Delegating or trading off tasks with others is another option. When my husband and I were dating, we would often end up at K-Mart during the course of the evening, so he could buy yet another package of underwear and put off doing laundry a bit longer.

boxer shorts laid out on floor

You own enough of these, you never have to do laundry again!

Now you might be wondering why I kept dating this guy. Actually I am too because it sounds kind of creepy in the retelling, but we’ve been married almost 37 years, and that’s the weirdest thing he’s ever done. He just really, really disliked doing laundry. But he likes to cook, which I’m not fond of. So he took over the kitchen and I rule in the laundry room and we’re both a lot happier.

If you truly hate something, you definitely should not force yourself to do it. If you do, it will make you mentally and emotionally sick. Kinda like forcing yourself to eat spoiled food. Ick!

Instead, try to figure out why that situation is pushing your psychological buttons. Once you know this, you may be able to pull the wires loose from it. But even if you can’t disconnect the button, at least you will know why you need to avoid that thing that you really hate. You’ll go from feeling a little crazy to knowing you are taking good care of your mental health.

Now let me make an important distinction here, between the things you hate and the things you fear.

#3: Face the things you fear IF they are obstacles to getting where you want to be. If you’re afraid of snakes and you live in the city and never go hiking, don’t worry about it. We do not have to face every one of our fears. Only the ones that are stopping us from achieving our goals. But facing your fear doesn’t mean you just forge ahead, making yourself do something. That may make matters worse.

Again, identifying the psychological button may help you disconnect it, or at least work around it. But sometimes we are just afraid of the unknown or the unfamiliar.

I was that way regarding promoting my books. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not very techno-savvy and I knew I’d have to learn about Twitter and Facebook and blogging, and… and… *grabbing my paper bag*   So I reminded myself of my own advice to clients.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed it can really help to “chunk it down.” I gave myself permission to take it slow, to just learn one thing at a time until I was comfortable with it. So I got on Twitter. A month or so later, I was tweeting away with ease; then I tackled Facebook. Now I’m feeling comfortable with both and I’m contemplating whether I should try Pinterest or Google+ next (it’s more a matter of available time now).

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help! We Americans come from independent stock. We feel we should do things for ourselves. That’s great, but there’s no shame is asking for help. Don´t you feel good when you know you´ve helped a friend? Give others the opportunity to experience that good feeling.

female friends offering a comforting hand

(photo by Mathias Klang from Göteborg Sweden CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Knowing I had my friend, Shannon, to coach me made it a lot easier to tackle my fear of social media. Friends can reassure, offer suggestions, or just hold your hand.

But ultimately you also have to…

 #4: Trust your gut!

If you’ve got a gut feeling about something, know that there is a reason for that feeling. What we call our gut instinct is really some part of our brain, that we are not currently in direct communication with, that has noticed something is off, or has made some connection between two or more pieces of information that puts a different spin on something.

Your gut instincts are never wrong! Let me repeat, your gut is never wrong. It has picked up on something relevant! The problem is that we get these instinctive hits as vague feelings, not in words. So we have to figure out what our gut is trying to tell us. And sometimes we misinterpret the message.

One of the tricky things here is trying to tease apart what are true gut feelings and what are irrational fears, either of the unknown or residuals from past experiences. Here’s where friends (or a therapist) can again come in handy. Running the whole situation past someone whose judgement you trust–and whom you know will not be judgmental of you!–can help you put it in perspective.

But while you’re trying to sort it out, you need to continue to respect that gut feeling. (I’m thinking I need to do an entire post on this soon.)

And last but never least…

#5: Relax at least three times a day. This is basic stress management. And no whining that you’re too busy and can’t do this. I’m talking about a 5 to 10-minute break (although 15 to 20 minutes is better). I have talked about this at length before. If you take the time to relax and lower your stress level for a few minutes, you will be more focused and more productive when you go back to what needs to get done.

And you are much more likely to be happier and healthier at the end of the day!


Reading is one of my favorite ways to relax. And our own Kirsten Weiss is one of my favorite authors. She has a new teaser video out to get us psyched up about her next book (her Book #5!)

And she has Book 4, The Infernal Detective, FREE on Amazon this Thursday and Friday, July 4th and 5th!

Make a note on your calendar to snag yourself a copy for some great summer reading! Then talk to me in the comments.

What helps you relax and/or keeps you on the right track mental-health-wise? Have these tips helped you rethink how you approach certain things?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once or twice a week, sometimes about serious topics, and sometimes just for fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)