In residency, we are trained to follow our intuition. In pediatrics, this translates into learning how to recognize a sick kid. Of course, we are taught what to look for on the physical exam and the labs and what protocols to follow, but we are also taught how to listen to our instincts. When our gut tells us we have a sick kid, we don’t overthink; we set into action. As a pediatrician in a busy practice, we often depend on the mother’s intuition. When a mom tells us that her child is “off,” we listen.
But what is that about? That intuition is not about thinking and analyzing. It’s about some sort of deeper “knowing” that is coming up from somewhere else. I never really thought about what that was until recently.
As a society, we are very cerebral. Analyzing and thinking. Our minds are thought of as the leader and boss, and the rest of the body is just sort of “there.” Physicians and scientists tend to focus on facts, analysis, randomized controlled studies, and evidence-based medicine. All of those things are amazing and hugely valuable, but we are missing critical information when we rely exclusively on the brain.
There is a growing body of research on the complex neural plexuses in the cardiac and enteric regions of the body. The upward feed to the brain from these neural networks explains the sensation of a gut instinct. Research suggests that the gut and heart are actually contributing inputs to processes like decision-making.
But are we listening?
For the most part, I would say the answer is “no.” We tend to push away our inner knowing and do what our brain tells us we “should” do. How can we tune in and know if our brain is running the show without input? Check-in with yourself. You might want to listen more deeply if you feel unfulfilled, anxious, or stressed or have a general feeling of constricted or tense.
Emotions and feelings are information and feedback for your brain. I think of them as symptoms. You can’t develop a treatment plan for the underlying sense of unfulfillment until you know what is causing it. Treating a patient’s fever without simultaneously exploring and determining the underlying etiology could have disastrous clinical outcomes. The same can be said for our physical and emotional health and well-being when we ignore the messages coming to our brains from our bodies.
But we are conditioned this way. We’re all familiar with the symptoms. It’s the knot in your stomach or the tightness in your chest. It’s the nagging headache after a long day, the feeling of dread, overwhelm, or exhaustion. We treat these gnawing symptoms by turning to things like food, drink, and social media. We are trained to ignore, outrun or numb away these inputs. And when we do this, we create a state of chronic stress in our body with all the hormonal cascades that can wreak havoc on our health when left unchecked.
Here’s how I see the balance of the brain, heart, and gut and how you can harness them to develop your inner wisdom. The heart is your inner compass. It knows what you want. Like the expression, “your heart’s desire,” it can help you set your GPS, purpose, and big “why.” No matter how many pros and cons lists you make, your rational brain doesn’t truly know what you want. Once your heart sets your destination, the mind can get to work on getting you there. It will use its expertise to plan and try and do and repeat. One step at a time. When it makes a wrong decision, and you veer off course from your preset destination, your gut will provide input (if you are wise enough to listen) and get you back on track.
So why do we feel so unfulfilled? Because we are leaning too heavily on and only listening to our minds. The brain is only one piece of a brilliantly orchestrated system. Put your beautiful mind to work in service of your heart’s desires, and let your gut keep you on track. Only you know what’s right for you; the answer is in your heart, not your head.
So get quiet, let go of your thoughts and listen to your heart and gut. Your physical and emotional health and well-being will thank you.
Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician and chief wellness officer, Allied Physicians Group, and a certified executive and life coach. She is founder, Shaer Coaching, and can be reached on Facebook. She is available for one-on-one coaching and speaking engagements: Feel free to schedule a conversation with Dr. Shaer or reach out by email.