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  • Dawn Toups, LPC

TODAY’S WORLD (Part 2): Should We Always Trust Our 'Gut'?

We have all been taught that we should trust our feelings or our gut instincts. But sometimes these can be wrong, especially when they are based on cognitive distortions (remember Jumping to Conclusions or Catastrophizing/Minimizing?). Two common examples of this are trauma-based assumptions and crowd following.

If we have experienced trauma or some other highly negative experience, we often carry that memory forward. Even when the danger has passed, our body may still respond to a trigger or reminder of the trauma. For example, if someone has been in a car accident, the smell of oil can cause panic even though the person is perfectly safe now. Or if someone grew up in a violent household, the sound of raised voices can produce a visceral fear response even though the current disagreement is not violent.


In these examples, that instant reaction is largely based on past trauma rather than the current situation. Our body may be interpreting the environment with a cognitive distortion rather than reality. So a feeling or gut instinct, like all our automatic thoughts, needs to be examined. What is the evidence? Is this feeling based on my past trauma or the actual situation at hand? Am I really in danger here?


Another common way that acting based on a feeling can mislead us is in crowd following. Humans are social beings. By nature, we want to belong, enjoy social gatherings, and be around others. When we belong, we feel appreciated, confident, and have overall positive mental health. When we are isolated from a group, we may feel unappreciated, less confident, lonely, and our mental health may begin to suffer.


But being in a group can also be mentally unhealthy when we sacrifice our wants, needs, or values to fit in. The incongruence leads to anxiety and low self esteem that is often managed by cognitive distortions (e.g., minimizing). For example, I never liked that quality about myself anyway. Or it's worth some losses to gain the admiration of my new friends. Or I'll be happy when...


Remember that cognitive distortions are irrational, unexamined thoughts that have been adopted over time, to help us make sense of the world we live in and to decrease minor levels of stress that are causing uncomfortable feelings within our bodies. We gradually learn that somehow finding a reason for whatever is causing us anxiety gives us some control over our feelings, or so we think.


Carefully considered, rational, helpful thoughts will guide us more effectively than automatic, irrational, unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes, gut feelings or instincts can fall into the latter category.

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