June 10, 2021

Is it a Gut Feeling or a Trauma Response? How to tell the Difference.

“Go with your gut,” I read.

My stomach lurched.

My relationship was not going well. Was this just a moment in time or a precursor of our future?

As my partner and I drifted apart, I grew angry and panicky. Through my repetitive preoccupied thoughts and mounting anxiety, I could feel my nervous system shouting at me. My spinal column felt irritated, and physical pain shot through my ribs and neck.

Obsessive thinking about whether to leave or stay took hold. I gathered opinions, adding nuance, specificity, and detail to each conversation, burying myself ever deeper in analysis.

My desperation to understand and solve the problem spilled into a Facebook group I sought as a salve for my distress.

Response after response suggested that I listen to my gut.

I’d spent almost two months attempting to do just that. My gut was screaming at me to “leave him; make the pain go away.” Followed by “wait it out” and “I love him” and “don’t leave.”

My gut was apparently contradicting itself.

What the f*ck was I supposed to do now?

When facing a decision, we need to evaluate if we are accessing a gut feeling or inviting a trauma response.

The urge to act, solve, react, and respond can be so strong that we believe these thoughts and behaviors are driven by gut feeling.

While we culturally reinforce the prioritization of facts and information, few of us are ever invited to fully feel or express our emotions. In fact, “children are bound to 10 times as many rules as adults in our culture, and twice those of a prisoner.”

Forced to develop coping mechanisms to maintain our bonds as we learned that our authentic selves would be rejected or punished, our connection to our gut feeling has all but dissolved.

When we rely only on brain-based, fact-checked decisions or acting on strong emotional ones, there is a strong possibility that we are trusting our childhood wounds more than our gut feeling.

Growing up, I was encouraged to quiet my feelings and present myself as positive and pleasant at every turn. I learned to squish down emotions, but also to erase my gut instinct.

My siblings and I had to kiss the relatives even when we had a bad feeling about them, or sit in class with a teacher who gave off more of a “heebie-jeebie” vibe than we were allowed to voice.

We sublimated our intuition as we were told what to do at all times and had every decision made for us.

As a child, I translated that messaging into, “Someone else knows the answer,” yet it didn’t feel safe to ask them. So I resolved to always get the “right” answer, using only my brain.

By the time I was a teenager, I would talk aloud on the lawnmower to myself with headphones on, the sounds of the world blocked out. There, rumination could take hold. With hours of mowing, acres of grass ahead of me, I had time to add nuance, specificity, and detail in order to bury myself into a deeper analysis—a skill I took to adulthood.

If we weren’t taught to overlook our gut feelings by our families, we definitely learned to do it in our institutions: school and work require us to provide backup for our opinions by way of stats, formulas, and written essays. We are rarely rewarded for listening to our gut on an exam, and we would be deemed “rogue” if we did so as an employee.

Having been trained at every turn since childhood to process questions through the perceptions of our minds, as adults, we are so used to the feeling of either brain-solving or acting on the emotions of a trigger that we will refer to those as gut feelings, turning our childhood wounds and traumas into action.

In other words, what we may deem a gut feeling may be giving voice to or acting from, a trigger. No gut feeling element may be included at all.

Still tormented about my relationship, and now aware that neither “someone else,” nor my brain had the answer, I remembered what a gut instinct could feel like:

My Montreal apartment was above a bagel shop that crafted handmade wood-fired bagels. Daytime was doused in the aroma of comfort and, at night, we would join the masses in the nightclubs or pubs, buzzing with vibrancy beneath the music, eyes alit as our friendships smoldered with the passions of the city.

Yet I struggled to assimilate the French language and culture and found it difficult to situate myself professionally. As an entrepreneur, I spent more money than I earned.

One morning, as I lay in bed, I watched the flutter of my orange curtain in the wind. I  was overcome with an “it’s time to go” gut feeling, a levity in my body.

The decision flowed like the flap of the fabric.

I moved to Toronto a week later. I hadn’t ruminated or requested advice from even a single person.

There is nothing like the ease that comes when your body experiences truth.

Our gut decisions almost always come in these kinds of knowing flashes: we may barely perceive a problem by the time we receive a solution or follow an instinct. There’s a lightness and a grace to intuitive information.

Gut feelings are a sense, rather than a thought or a feeling. If we think of them as a “sixth sense,” no different than sight or sound or smell, we instinctively understand their nature. The information they give us often feels “received” rather than sought out. We suffer from no ruminating thoughts about what we smell nor do we typically need a friend’s input to analyze what we see.

We can differentiate a trauma response from a gut feeling by using our body sensations as a guide:

>> Trauma responses result in a lack of steadiness, an imbalance. These perceptions can become preoccupying, flooding our body with heavy feelings which take work to resolve.
>> Gut feelings will have a lightness and clarity in the same way touch or sound does. We give them no thought and accept them as fact.
>> A key indication that we are following a childhood wound rather than a gut feeling is when the word “like” appears immediately after we say “I feel…”
>> Gut feelings come with a sense of “I know.”
>> Responses from triggers are often accompanied by a pit in the stomach or a need for dissection, fact-checking, or verification from others.
>> Gut feelings tend to be the adult voice on the shoulder, presenting the rational truth in the same way our fingertips detect temperature. We are at ease and solid in our own information.

Good decisions rely on a balance of head, gut, and emotion.

I stepped away from Facebook and stopped vigorously seeking out solutions. My brain, trained for processing, and primed to associate being rewarded with generating logical and rational solutions—a trauma response—was working overtime.

About a month later, it arrived, unexpectedly—the same breezy sensation in my body that I remembered from my apartment in Montreal.

With no suffering or ruminating, I ended the relationship.

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