How understanding your gut instinct can unlock a happier life

By using greater awareness to listen to your gut, you can unlock inner desires and lead you on to amazing new possibilities


It was a relationship that on paper shouldn’t have worked. Sophie Belle met her soul mate at a party in London – but he was due to leave in five days’ time to move to Singapore. “Immediately we had such a strong connection, she says. “I had a real gut feeling about him. We stayed up all night talking and decided to keep in touch. A year later I moved to Singapore to be with him.”   


Ten years’ later, the pair are married with two children. “I realise now that whenever I’ve just gone for it in my life because something felt ‘right’, even if it didn’t necessarily tick all the logical boxes, it has worked out,” explains Sophie, a breathwork facilitator and founder of Mind You Club. “I also think that when we feel an unexplained resistance to something that might, on paper, seem ‘right’ -  it’s often because something more better for us will come along.”  



What Sophie is describing is “gut instinct”, which she describes as “when we instinctively have a feeling about something without necessarily having a rational explanation for it.”  


It can feel extremely powerful – like your body is communicating with you on a cellular level. Your gut is like your compass, it can steer you to places way beyond where your mind can comprehend,” Caroline Britton, a soul coach says. “It can open up a world of magic if you allow yourself to listen to it." 


Because it feels so unexplained, trusting your gut can seem risky or almost superstitious. But in fact, gut instinct is something that psychologists and neuroscientists have been paying serious attention to for the past two decades. And increasingly it’s being recognised as a valid indicator of our true feelings.  


“The brain and gut are absolutely interconnected, constantly communicating and working closely and bi-directionally,” Dr Lola Tillyaeva, doctor in psychology, wellbeing activist and entrepreneur, says. She explains that “gut feeling” is actually a result of the information our gut bacteria receives constantly from the outside world. “On a physiological level, your gut bacteria communicate with your brain via chemical messengers and neural connections. The gut flora reacts to this information quickly and gives its own answer to what is going on.”  



What we’re only starting to realise now is that the gut is almost like a “second brain,” according to Dr Tillyaeva. “The billions of neurons in the brain are constantly firing off signals that travel down the long vagus nerve sending messages to many of our inner organs, including our digestive tract. But our gut has its own army of neurons as well, the so-called Enteric Nervous System (ENS) embedded in the lining of the digestive tract. Around 85 percent of these neurons— there are millions of them—are busy sending messages the other way back up to our brain.” Increasing our awareness of this connection between our brain and our gut can only help us when navigating life’s choices.    


On a physical level at least, most of us are already familiar with the connection between brain and gut. Along with a sense that we should do something, like leaving a secure job for a more random offer that just feels ‘right’, we’ve all experienced the everyday manifestations of these messages from the gut. Think of the butterflies in your stomach before giving a speech, or a deep feeling in the pit of your core if something feels too overwhelming – this is your gut’s way of telling you something significant is happening.  


When it comes to big life decisions, it seems that gut instinct is a good marker. In multiple studies by Stanford psychologists. participants were given a series of complex decisions such as choosing a new car, flat or what medical treatment they might need. When they used logical “head-focused” strategies to answer the dilemma, they got it right 26 percent of the time; when they used their intuition, or a feelings-based approach, that shot up to making the best choice 68 percent of the time. 


Caroline says it’s important to trust that feeling. “We talk about getting a ‘feeling’ about something and we’ve been so conditioned to see feeling as secondary to thinking that we disregard it. It’s important not to, this feeling can really help us in difficult situations and if in doubt, trust that niggle.” 



The body’s complex internal messaging system harks back to when humans were hunter-gatherers and had to rely on “gut instinct” for survival. “It’s something that’s been known for thousands of years,” Dr Tillyaeva says. 


But we’ve also all been in situations where something feels wrong, but we know we should push through – so how do we know when to trust our gut and when we’re reading the signals wrong? “There is a difference between feeling overcome by emotions like when you are nervous or going through a big life change and using a gut feeling to power your decision making,” Caroline says. “The key thing is to ask yourself this: ‘Am I not doing this because I want to avoid feeling discomfort’ - which is a very natural bi-product of growth, such as when you want to bolt from a presentation, or ‘Is there something in my body that is trying to tell me that something is not right here?’, such as when you stomach sinks around your job or a certain person. The latter comes from a place of power and the first one is giving your power away.” 


It takes practice – and a lot of listening to your body, but Caroline adds that you should try to figure out whether you feel restricted and tight, or open and expanded in the moment.  


“These are signs of where you are being guided, even if your mind doesn’t like or understand it. A great technique is the traffic light system. Ask your body to say green if something in your body feels like a yes, amber if it feels like a maybe and red if it is a big no. You will be amazed at how quickly your body tells you. Trust your first answer."   



Sophie adds that breathwork can be a powerful tool to help tap into gut instinct. “Breathwork helps by calming the nervous system, which then helps up tune with what our bodies are really trying to tell us -  rather than our natural instincts being clouded by a busy mind and stressed system.”  


But also, “we can use our breath to alter our state of consciousness and explore emotions and intuition.” Using a technique called Conscious Connected Breathing, Sophie says can be “a way of very deeply tapping into our intuition and feeling our way through a problem or dilemma; getting clarity from a place of inner wisdom.” 


The key to listening to our bodies and guts is first slowing down, so that they feel like a safe place to be. “I absolutely think that (true) gut instinct is linked with greater awareness of the body,” Sophie says. It’s only then that we can really tune into our gut instinct and truly allow it to guide us in a very positive way.” 

Jessica Salter

Jessica Salter

Jessica Salter is a freelance health and wellbeing journalist with more than 15 years’ experience writing for titles ranging from the Financial Times to the Sunday Times and British Vogue. She enjoys seeking out new trends and digging down to find science and expert opinion to discover the ways in which we can live happier, healthier lifestyles – and trying to put them into practice in her own (less than perfect) life.