Understanding Gut Feelings

This article is about normal healthy anxiety. Essential anxiety which keeps us alive and safe. Understanding the mechanisms at play and using it to your advantage. It is called gut feeling.

The reason any of us is here today is because our ancestors had learnt to avoid life threatening situations. Those who did not have a fear of deadly animals or snakes or spiders will have been less likely to survive to pass on their genes.

Inherited genes are therefore most likely to include  those with a warning mechanism for danger. Those of us lucky enough to have made it this far will have an  inherited inbuilt warning system. This alertness to danger is healthy anxiety. These echos of the past lie deeply in the subconscious forming a base layer of our alertness.

As we grow up we will add further layers to that alertness based on experiences and learning, from early childhood.  This alertness – healthy anxiety – is a preparedness to react instantaneously to a threat. In such situations we do not have time to consciously evaluate a risk.

From this deep subconscious level the warnings signals are passed to the autonomic involuntary nervous system so that the body is immediately prepared for defence.

The warning is the very early stage of the stress response which is also described in more detail in the article on the vagus nerve.  A good example of the warning mechanism is the feeling one gets it looking over the edge of a very tall building or a cliff. This may vary in intensity from a little ‘butterflies in the stomach’ to a gripping fear. A risk brings a protective warning and preparation for a bad outcome. Important to the message of this article is that this reaction is not controllable. It is instinctive from the subconscious.

At times of stress or fright, as you will have read in the previous article,  preparation for action may require the stomach, bowels and bladder to be emptied. The intestines from the oesophagus to the anus has a very elaborate nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System, which has been called the second brain because it has the ability to function on its own if the vagus nerve is disconnected from it. In a similar way, the heart has its own innervation.

Silent echoes from your genes:

The initial emotion of a warning is the gut feeling, butterflies or instinct alertness which causes you to ‘prick up your ears’.  Something may be amiss but ‘you cannot just put your finger on it’. This warning comes from the subconscious store of risks recorded from experience. A silent voice from the past.

  • Have you ever asked yourself after a conversation: ‘Why am I being told this’?
  • Or having been at a meeting wondered what the real agenda is.
  • There will have been many occasions when you said that you need to sleep on a decision
  • Why do first impressions tell you that you don’t like someone? And should you trust this instinct?
  • When your instinct tells you to keep away from a situation, why is it happening?
  • Sometimes first impressions are of love! The subconscious is always looking out for you.

This instinctive nudge, felt as the emotion of butterflies, is caused the natural protective ability of the subconscious to analyse events against experience and send a warning. It is a very early hint but the enteric nervous system knows what to do if necessary. Thus the feeling in the gut serves as a little warning to consciousness to be aware.

A well written play, piece of art, a book or a piece of music will have many layers of emotion written into it. A difficult meeting can be seen in the same way. Often there is a  meaning beneath the words so that one has to reflect on the meeting to get the real meaning and the individual agenda of those involved. Each individual present in any conversation will have similar guidance from the subconscious; silent echos controlling their reactions.

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Sleeping on a decision

Reflection will be on how it felt to be there and the impact each participant had. This goes deeper than the words to the emotional interplay.

When we sleep on something we do not dwell on the words as much as the emotions they provoked. A dream which seems particularly weird can be seen as a pageant of all the occasions and circumstances in which you felt similar to the moment in question.

A group of people talking is like a concerto of emotions; individual agenda with words overlaid. Re-hear the conversation without the words. Feeling the flow of emotion and playing it against your own honest personal interest will give a better understanding of what is really happening.

This is not an active process but something done in relaxation or, possibly, sleep. Emotional messages are passed back to the brain and stored as memories. The gut feelings of the meeting are recorded in this way waiting to be analysed.

So, a gut feeling is real. It is a little warning based on your personal experience. It is highlighting a personal risk not to get involved in a situation or with a particular person.

  • Many decisions, such as who one will spend the rest of their life with are made in an instant.
  • Employing the right person is another example. Very often in interviews one person stands out head and shoulders above all others. a meeting of minds.
  • How often have you heard people say that as soon as they saw the house they knew it was right?

Gut instinct works both ways.

In addition to the enteric system there are two further components to a gut feeling.

The role of the vagus is described at the link. Its role is to calm the body and also to manage the digestive system. It is the main connection between the enteric system and the brain through the autonomic – involuntary – system.

It is the vagus nerve which you use to calm the body to assist decision making.

The Bacteris of the Gut

There is a further intriguing ‘organ’ of the body. The intestine contains a massive collection of bacteria which are, in the main, essential to healthy living. These bugs pay their way in a number of ways. They produce nerve transmission chemicals, vitamins; they play a role in water retention, the breakdown of food and sugar management.

This large collection of bacteria is being demonstrated to have a role ininflamation, obesity and type 2 diabetes if it is not in a healthy state. It can be nourished by proper diet. This will keep the balance of bacteria most conducive to carrying out their beneficial roles. These roles are – believe it or not! – stimulated by the nervous system.

There is a very clear connection with the intestines/digestive system and the subconscious mind. The subconscious message, based on experience,  may not be immediately obvious but it is a subtle warning that in similar circumstances in the past something went wrong. Beware. Or it may be the green light that you may spend the rest of your life with someone.

The vagus nerve talks to bacteria which produce the neurotransmitters which carry a warning or a supportive message. Treat them well.


So, the role of the enteric nervous system is not just to empty your bowels in all directions when you get a fright. Amongst all its myriad duties it communicates with bacteria outside the body to have them create chemicals which stimulate the little echo of your past or the past of your ancestors, to warn you that something is not quite right.

Read a lot more about the whole subject in The Mind Diet