Intuition vs Anxiety: How to Clearly Tell the Difference

intuition Jan 06, 2023
a crossroads sign pointing someone in the right direction between intuition and anxiety


Many highly intuitive people experience frequent anxiety and with practice and self-awareness they can begin to rely on, trust, and listen to their intuition. When you are experiencing anxiety, it can be difficult to know whether it is your intuition or anxiety that's trying to guide you. You may discover you are not reacting to situations or experiences in the moment, but instead operating through your past experiences and emotions. 


When you are feeling anxious, you may have fearful thoughts that are not connected to intuition. For example, I have a fear of heights. When I was a kid I experienced extreme turbulence on an airplane during a thunderstorm. I remember some of the people around me crying quietly and some screaming, seemingly afraid for their lives. When I experience extreme anxiety, I sometimes have a feeling of free-falling and being out of control. I love to travel now, but after I book a flight I almost always have the thought “I should cancel, what if my plane crashes” and when my mind races ahead to the future I can clearly picture just that. Because this is a fear of mine, it’s almost impossible for me to “feel into” my intuition in the moment of anxiety.


With intuition, you will experience a calm knowing and you may not have any explanation for it. The first memory I have of experiencing intuition is when I was 11 years old playing on a construction site in the rain with a friend. We climbed to the top of a two-story high sand pile and as it began to rain harder, I began to sink up to my chest in the sand and mud. As my friend tried to pull me out, my body went into full panic mode kicking and struggling to get free. The more I struggled, the quicker I sank into the mud.  Suddenly, a sense of calm came over me and I knew that I needed to stop struggling and be still. My friend then pulled me out leaving my clothes and shoes behind in the mud. The strong feeling of knowing that I experienced had taken away my panic. Intuition arrives as a knowing and often presents itself with a solution. 




Understanding Intuition


Intuition is an instinct; it is a natural ability that we have as humans to know or understand something without conscious reasoning. Scientists believe intuition operates through the parts of our brain that are responsible for managing creativity, memory and recognizing patterns. Our brains are neuronally connected to our digestive system (our gut) which is why many people will experience a “gut feeling” when experiencing intuition. However intuition is not always experienced as a feeling. In fact, when you are experiencing intuition you may not experience “a feeling” at all. Very often intuition can feel almost detached, like a wise part of you is operating on your behalf. Sometimes it may be difficult to listen to your intuition. It is always experienced in the present moment, whereas anxiety may seek the future for disaster. Intuition feels calm and grounded and is experienced as “a knowing”. 


Everyone has intuitive abilities in varying levels of sensitivity and awareness. There are highly sensitive people or people who are extremely empathic and intuitive. It’s true that some people are going to be more gifted in their natural sensitivities but we all have them, and they can be developed. Intuition is the subtle energetic guidance, that calm inner knowing that leads us. When you are experiencing intuition there is often no need for anxiety because you have “a knowing” of what to do. 




Understanding Anxiety


Anxiety comes from fear, which is another powerful instinct that we feel in our bodies. Everyone struggles with fears and anxieties at times and being afraid is a natural part of the human experience. Have compassion for yourself, by acknowledging your fears and anxieties without judgement as you explore and develop your intuition. Getting to know your unique physical symptoms when you are anxious can be helpful in differentiating the two. Like intuition, anxiety can happen in the present but most often it can also be connected to past emotions or experiences and it almost always sends you into the future to imagine various outcomes. Anxiety can feel overwhelming and chaotic. Whereas intuition sounds like “I just know”, anxiety speaks to us urgently and often sounds like “what if…” .


Moving out of an anxious state can help you to “tune into” intuition. I’m not saying to discount fear, as it is a lifesaving instinct. However, as humans we feel afraid more often than a lifesaving amount. 


“What if I fail?”

“What if something bad happens?”

“What if I never meet anyone?”

“What will they think?” 


These are all fears that cause anxiety. If we examine our feelings, we can often identify the why and how of our fear. In reflection or in therapy we can often take our fears back to the root cause. We discover we are not operating as a being in this moment, but we are operating through all of our past experiences. 




Main Differences Between Intuition & Anxiety


Intuition feels like a gentle nudge whereas anxiety may feel like a fire drill.

Anxiety will often present as a thought that frantically repeats itself, whereas intuition presents as a calm knowing. With anxiety there are often fearful and ruminating thoughts that may feel difficult to dismiss. Anxious thoughts can make us question ourselves over and over. Intuition presents as a calm knowing. It may present as a thought however it won’t feel as frantic and all encompassing.


Intuition is your soul’s knowing and anxiety is more of a question.

With anxiety there are likely questions your mind is presenting to you that start with “what if.” “What if something bad happens” is often a general theme of anxiety. Both anxiety and intuition may aim to protect you but with intuition you may not have any questions at all simply a knowing what you need to do. With intuition it's still very possible to feel anxious about what you know you have to do, however you do know what you want. You might notice that when you try to explain why you are anxious about something you sound unsure. With intuition you may not have all the answers, but it’s easy to know what you want or need to do.


Intuition feels confident, anxiety feels unsure or self conscious.

Because anxiety often causes us to perseverate on an issue we may go seeking answers or feel like asking everyone we know “what should I do?” If this happens to you, it’s likely a sign that anxiety has taken over. Intuition feels sure, confident and calm. When we are explaining to someone that we “just know” what we want because we have an intuitive feeling we are more likely to sound and feel confident and sure of ourselves.


Anxiety engages our fight or flight response, intuition is slow and grounded.

Everyone experiences anxiety slightly differently but when we experience anxiety our nervous system is in an activated state in response to some stimuli. Our fight or flight response kicks on and there will likely be physical symptoms. With intuition, it’s easiest to receive impressions when we are calm and clear. With intuition, you likely feel a subtle knowing and confidence in what you know.


Intuition is always experienced in the present moment.

Intuition is always experienced in the present moment, whereas anxiety based on past experiences and emotions may focus on a future disaster—one that may never happen. For example, when you are experiencing anxiety it may feel as though your thoughts are running ahead imagining various nightmarish scenarios. You may or may not be aware of a prior negative experience related to a past experience. Intuition happens in the moment, not when we are worrying about the future or lamenting about the past. Staying present is an important way to stay connected to your intuition.


Anxiety can feel like it’s coming from you, intuition may feel like it's coming to you.

For some people intuition is a detached feeling. It may feel like a knowing that is coming to you from your soul or some deeper place. It might even feel like a wise part of you is operating on your behalf. With anxiety the thoughts and sensations often feel as though they are coming from you even if they are hard to ignore. When an answer subtly comes to you, that’s a good sign that it’s coming from your intuition.




Look at how your conditioning may be affecting your intuition


Our thoughts, behaviors and feelings link to create our beliefs and the way we experience the world. These past experiences and beliefs are how you are conditioned to perceive the world.

Your conditioning is one of the largest barriers to trusting and understanding intuition. No matter what your past experiences, western society regularly dismisses feelings and instincts and honors productivity and fact over all else.

As you start to understand and rely on intuition, it’s easier to look back on and understand your conditioning. Most of us are asked in early childhood to suppress our sensitivity to the world and outright ignore our intuition without complaining. Each time we ask our children to eat more even though they aren’t hungry or to be polite and hug a relative they don’t want to hug we are asking them to ignore their intuition. We don’t need to have had a tough disciplinarian as our caretaker, many of us have been policing and micromanaging ourselves into compliance with our familial and societal rules, we are our own harsh disciplinarian or inner critic.




How to Know If It’s Intuition or Anxiety

When learning the difference between intuition and anxiety your body is going to be your greatest teacher. Anxiety comes with physical symptoms that are unique to everyone and I recommend becoming aware of the physical sensations you feel when you are experiencing anxiety. Anxiety can cause headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, shakiness, or stomach pain and there are lots of other sneaky symptoms. Learning some strategies to manage symptoms can help you get to a calm place to feel your intuition and also improve the quality of your life. Anxiety also tends to feel like a quick moving energy and you might experience a sensation it in your chest or head. It can feel disorienting. Intuition tends to feel low and slow. Meaning it's a much more subtle and grounded energy sometimes felt in the gut or lower in the body. The overall sensation is a subtle knowing. 

If you feel overwhelmed in trying to discern the difference sometimes it can be helpful to do a brain dump. This is an exercise that can help you make sense of the chaos going on in your thoughts and gain clarity. Typically you'll do this by writing out all of your thoughts and ideas in a steady flow until you've got it all out on the page. Then you can look back on what you've written and gain self awareness. Many people feel that this gives them some space from thier thought and anxieties. I recommend trying different methods and sticking with what feel right to you. 


To determine if what you're feeling is anxiety or intuition, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Where do I feel this in my body?  
  2. Is this feeling coming from a calm and grounded place?
  3. How could my past emotions be influencing me? If your past emotions are closely connected to this situation, give yourself some time before making a decision.


Signs you are experiencing intuition:

  • Experiencing a strong feeling or knowing
  • Feeling calm and sure of yourself
  • Know exactly what you truly want or need to do  
  • You find it easy to explain yourself to others or you find you have no need to 

Signs you are experiencing anxiety:

  • You feel elf-conscious
  • Tightness in your chest or a quicker heartbeat 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • A feeling of restlessness 
  • Perseverating on thoughts and worries
  • Difficulty when explaining your feelings and when you try you may sound frantic 




Can intuition cause anxiety?

Highly intuitive people often experience anxiety and sometimes their intuition may be the cause. I have many clients that have experienced a vision or dream that predicted a negative event in their life or even the death of a pet or loved one. It’s common for people to feel a sense of responsibility around their intuition as if they could have prevented a negative event. Oftentimes, simply being curious about something or someone can cause highly intuitive people to receive psychic or intuitive impressions. I recommend developing your intuition and becoming familiar with how it works as much as possible. This way you can start to set boundaries around the type of information you’d like to receive and impressions you get. Being highly intuitive and not understanding intuition can cause anxiety, but being connected to your intuition, trusting it and taking actions to support yourself will bring a sense of calm and confidence to your life. 




Do people with anxiety have good intuition?

Anxiety can be a barrier to intuition, however I believe that many anxious people are naturally very intuitive and have trouble with decision making. The phrase “trust your gut” may be endlessly annoying to anxious people because experiencing anxiety can make it difficult to easily access this “gut feeling.” According to a new study: relying on one’s intuition requires the decision maker to have confidence in an inexplicable hunch and to follow subtle emotional or bodily cues (Bechara & Damasio, 2005; Topolinski & Strack, 2009a, 2009b). Thus, to judge and decide based on one’s intuition may be seen as risky (because one knows something without explicitly knowing why) and therefore people may be less likely to rely on their intuition when they are anxious. If you suffer from anxiety I encourage you to seek support. You might start by sharing how you’re feeling with a trusted friend or beginning a conversation with a therapist.




How to Trust Your Intuition When You Have Anxiety


Practice when the stakes are low

The best way to begin to build trust with your intuition is to practice and if you struggle to tell the difference between anxiety and intuition practice when the stakes are low. This will help remove emotions from the process and let you experiment without pressure. This blog post on Exercises to Develop your Intuition is a great resource to get you started. I don’t recommend participating in “psychic tests” you might find online. Psychic tests have become popular on social media the last few years and usually consist of something when three objects are shown and you need to use your intuition to tell which object will be picked up. Because there are only a set number of answers these tests can engage your conscious mind and cause more self doubt when your mind goes to “guess” the answer. With intuition the answer can’t be guessed with your mind, it will come to you more subtly than that. Zener cards are a slightly better way to practice with receiving intuitive impressions but can also become problematic once you become familiar with the symbols.


Learn more about intuition

Chances are that when you begin thinking about developing your intuition it will lead you towards opportunities to learn more about it. Talking with others about your intuitive experiences or reading about other people's experiences can be validating and give you a better idea of what to expect and what the process of trusting yourself will be like. In my book Uncovering Intuition, Guidance, Inspiration, and Exercises to Unlock Your Inner Wisdom, I share about my journey of learning to trust my intuition after traumatic events as well as how to read auras, interpret your dreams, create an altar, connect with your spirit guides, and more.


Practice self-compassion

If you feel like self-doubt is the cause of your anxiety or you are having trouble trusting yourself, you might try a self-compassion meditation. This free meditation by Dr. Kristin Neff is my go-to recommendation for anyone struggling with self-doubt. You might also add affirmations to your daily intuitive practice after understanding what they can do for your confidence.


Take action

Some of the most powerful ways that you can build trust with your intuition are going to be external actions that you take. These might be small actions like canceling plans when you need to rest, listening to the cues of your body, eating when you are hungry, etc. There also may be more significant ways you listen to your intuition like changing your relationships with people, moving homes, or changing jobs. Each time you take an action on behalf of your intuitive senses, you trust your feelings, and you strengthen that bond with your intuitive awareness. Even if you still question yourself and feel unsure, the actions that you take are going to be really meaningful over time in building trust with your intuition. Give yourself time. Remember how long it takes to build trust with a friend or in a new relationship and be patient with yourself.



If you're excited to deepen your connection to your intuition, consider scheduling a reading with me here.

Sheryl Wagner - Author

Welcome, I’m so glad you are here. I’m Sheryl, a psychic medium, teacher, and author of the book Uncovering Intuition. I love writing about my experiences with the Spirit World and the magic of synchronicity. Learn more about how you can work with me.

Free Guide

33 Psychic Exercises to Improve Your Intuition


A free guide with 33 practices to uncover your inner wisdom—sent straight to your inbox. 

Your soul holds the truth of your life path and purpose. Connecting to your intuition helps you access that knowledge every single day to live with more power, truth, and intention.

 *I will never share your information, signing up for this free resource will subscribe you to weekly emails and offerings. Unsubscribe anytime.