Trust Your Instincts

Everyone tells you to. Survivng Survival

Not long ago my second husband I were out to dinner with several other couples, and someone mentioned that his hairstylist had hired a private eye to learn whether her husband was having an affair. The husband was.

“Waste of money,” said another person at the table. “She already knew.”

“Shoulda trusted her intuition,” my husband said.

“And how will that hold up in court?” I said.


“Get over it.” How often do we bite our tongues on that phrase? We understand, of course we do, that not everyone follows our own personal timetable for grief, for overcoming a personal, emotional, or physical catastrophe. Yet it’s hard not to feel impatient, perhaps especially when the person struggling to recover is ourselves.

The mystery of why some people seem to bounce back from a disaster while others suffer from PTSD has been attracting a lot of research lately. What is resilience, and can I get some of that? Do you have to be born with it? Is it really a good thing, or are those people just shallow? (A suspicion I’ve always had about optimistic people.)

In Surviving Survival, Laurence Gonzales surveys much of the current thinking about what goes into long-term recovery—after the first encounter with disaster, such as assault, combat, a shark attack, a bear attack, cancer, the loss of a child, has been overcome. You’ve technically survived, a topic Gonzales addressed in his previous book, Deep Survival, so now how do you actually get “over” it?


It turns out that much of why you got into trouble had to do with how well you were able to listen to your instincts. How well you recover may also be a function of your relationship to your intuition.

It may be that the real source of trauma lies in the gap between our gut-knowledge and our brains. Actually, gut-knowledge is in our brain, too, but deeper in our brain than the layer we usually call our mind.

Deep-brain knowledge, which comes from the earlier layers of evolution, the lizard and pre-human mammalian brains, is the real source of the sixth sense. That part of our brain is always gathering information, from the corners of our eyes, from smells we no longer remember, from sounds our ancestors recognized, from patterns in the leaves, from body language and facial expressions. It’s processing this data at speeds our conscious minds, tuned as they are to the slower pace of language, can’t possibly keep up with.

Rat-in-cage (1)Our rat-brains, our lizard brains, our bird brains always have our backs.

They are our intuition.

But tell that to the judge. If you’re a cop, tell that to the inquisition team if you shoot too soon at the kid you think has a gun. Gonzales recounts the case of an American platoon in Iraq that knew an Iraqi civilian meant them harm. But they couldn’t finger him. A search turned up no weapons. They couldn’t detain him. All they could do was watch as their unease built. They had no way to turn their knowledge into anything actionable.

Sure enough, he blew them up.

And what was the tip off? Probably some subtle cue in his face, his walk, that only their rat-brains could see. Nothing their more modern brains could articulate. Nothing beyond “This ain’t right.”

One woman in the book takes a ride home from a co-worker. He reaches into the back seat of his car, and she bolts. Why? She thinks he has an axe and wants to kill her. Why an axe? Why does this nice co-worker of hers want to kill her?

What’s wrong with you? he wants to know, when he catches up with her, empty-handed in the snow. She has to laugh at herself, she supposes. They continue working together. He seems perfectly nice. Eventually she marries him.

Thirty years later, he shot her.

Rats are smart.

In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer relates that a couple of people turned around on the day of the big disaster on Everest. They stepped out of line and descended before the crisis hit. Something about the day didn’t feel right to them. The weather, the timing, their own strength or lack thereof. Rather than defer to the guides, as even an experienced climber like Krakauer did that day, they took responsibility for their situation and turned around.

Some of the women approached by serial killer Ted Bundy—probably more women than we know of—were creeped out by him. Although Bundy wore a cast and posed as a student needing help carrying his books to his car, and although he was handsome and charming, and although he himself had very good instincts for choosing certain women as prey, some just knew not to collaborate with his choice. One got as far as his car and suddenly dropped the books and ran. Left the “poor” guy standing there with his crutches, books scattered all over the ground.

The trouble with listening to danger-sign instincts is that you almost never get validation for it, and often you are ridiculed. Survival is not its own reward, because very often you do not know what you survived. If you turn around on Everest and everyone else makes it to the top, you are a wimp. If that platoon in Iraq had detained the suspicious guy and never found the bomb, they would not know what they averted. If you run from Ted Bundy and he is never apprehended, you may castigate yourself as a bitch for not helping that guy in a cast. If you leave the husband you suspect is deceiving you without ever catching him in the act, you will always wonder.


Some years ago I was riding my bike up Lefthand Canyon, where I lived near Boulder. I was riding alone, as was often the case, and has been since. I’m not a fearful person. Although this canyon is popular with cyclists, there weren’t any around at that time, and there wasn’t much traffic either. A white pickup truck went by with three guys in the cab. It slowed down. They whistled. I normally like it when guys whistle. As I age I appreciate it even more.

But. Something creeped me out.

I didn’t freak, though. At that time, I was overworked and hadn’t been exercising enough. I was a bit overweight, maybe 4OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA0 pounds. Whistles or not, I didn’t think I was much in the way of bait, and I told myself so. Objectively. Rationally. No reason to get creeped out.

Pretty soon the truck returned. It slowed again.

Then it came back up. And slowed way down as it passed me.

I walk and run in the woods a lot, where there are mountain lions. This little thought poked into my head: sometimes even a lion knows when to run and hide.

It was all downhill to my house, and if I rode like hell I could hit 40 mph. They still needed to turn around again. I thought I could probably beat those guys to my house.

So I jerked the bike around and sprinted.

I’ll never know if I was imagining the threat. A lot of prettier women than me ride that canyon. Rationally it seemed unlikely anyone would single me out.

When I got home, my husband seemed amused. He didn’t outright make fun of me, but let’s just say he didn’t go stand at the end of the driveway with the shotgun.

To reiterate: there’s no sure reward for trusting your instincts. You will never know with your mind’s eye.

On the other hand, if I hadn’t run, I might be dead.

That’s what my inner rat thinks. It’s never been creeped like that since.

In one of the stories in his fantastic new collection, Gregory Spatz creates aHalfAsHappy woman who misses a key indicator that her husband is not compatible with her. He is a good lover. They have fun. They have similar interests. She wants to be reasonable. They pride themselves on being mature and on growing beyond the primitive notion of “falling” in love. There are so many green lights, and there is what she wants to believe, not about him but about herself, about the kind of person she is, about how she goes about choosing a man. But, from the beginning, he just didn’t smell quite right to her. She tries to ignore that. Pain ensues.

The nose knows.

A couple of years ago a friend learned that her longtime partner had been cheating on her. She’d been uneasy. But she’d dismissed it. He didn’t seem the type. If she had mentioned her misgivings to me, I wouldn’t have been helpful at all. I would have said, Oh, I don’t think he would ever do that. Even though I usually am the first to tell other people, especially other women, to trust their instincts. Because he really did seem like the last guy on earth who would do that sort of thing.

Gonzales calls our tendency to overrule the rat brain the “tyranny of reason.” We trust what we can objectively justify to some impartial other. I would have felt a lot better about my decision in the canyon if my husband (the same one who said the private-eye-hiring hairstylist should have trusted her instincts) had only told me, “I’m really glad you did that and I’m sure you were right. ” But I did learn something that day, regardless of whether anyone validated my decision to turn my bike around. This is what the deer know: there is power in flight.

Perhaps it helps, though, to realize that the sixth sense is not, after all, extrasensory, but sort of undersensory. These are our underlying senses; they’ve been part of us all along. Our survival is their concern.


To understand how ignoring our instincts may hurt recovery, it may help to look at what contributes to PTSD. One of the pioneers of trauma psychology, Peter Levine, showed how important it was to move the body in order to process trauma. Animals that rely on flight and freezing as primary defense mechanisms—rabbits, deer, mice—will invariably tremble after the threat has passed.

A person going into shock will shake. EMTs often mistakenly sedate the victim, which Levine says they should not do unless this is necessary to prevent further injury, particularly to the spine. We shake when we come out of anesthesia also, and this is both a response to the drugs and to being restrained during a traumatic procedure.

LevineLevine says people who have gone into freeze mode under attack are more likely to have PTSD than those who went into fight mode. A woman who is raped and who fights back will likely have a better recovery than someone who does not fight, even if the first woman’s injuries are far more severe. To repeat. Level of trauma is less significant than whether a person was able to move or respond, in terms of how resilient they will be down the road.

If this is true, then it may follow that whether a person is able to listen to his or her instincts could play a role in how significant their PTSD may turn out to be. I’m just thinking here. Guilt seems to play a role. Levine says people who freeze up and watch others get hurt suffer more than those who are able to do something—anything, even if they are ultimately ineffective. This is borne out in Erin Finley’s Fields of Combat.

Perhaps standing helplessly, as those Gonzales describes had to in Iraq when their instinctive alarm systems were going off, is harmful to resilience. I wonder if it’s similar to being physically restrained. Perhaps you feel as guilty toward your rat-brain as you do toward a fallen comrade. You feel you’ve let your intuition down.

It’s a catch-22. You don’t know how to explain to someone why you need to turn around on a mountain on a clear day (because your rat-brain senses an avalanche, or smells a predator) and your companions, perhaps lacking either as refined a rat as yours or as exceptional a connection to theirs, will look at you like you’re an idiot. Perhaps they’ll think you’re unstable, a bit hysterical. If you turn around and escape triggering the avalanche or encountering the bear, you will never prove you were right. Instead, your dead-on accuracy may reinforce the perception of your unreliability in the minds of your companions.

On the other hand, if you do know, in that deep-knowing way, and if you don’t act, and the snowfield runs, or the bear attacks, then what? Your friends, out of the loop to begin with, will probably recover a whole lot faster than you will. You, on the other hand will probably feel guilty forever. Because you knew, and you should have done something. You may also be more wired to sense danger now. A sound in a movie theater may trigger your avalanche alarm.

Don’t we beat ourselves up when we should have known better? We did know, sometimes, didn’t we? That we should have quit when we sensed that boss was gunning for us? That the thing we majored in, or the career we chose to please someone, or that first guy we married was wrong… And when did we know? Probably fairly early. Often we make a pact with our selves never to do that again. And so we tiptoe around, peering into faces. Is this guy anything like that one? How will I know? That other job seemed okay at first. How can I trust life again?

I think this is why some people have a harder time getting over things that seem to observers as though they shouldn’t be so traumatic, like a divorce, or a job loss, than other “survivors” do. Like that platoon in Iraq, they couldn’t translate their intuition into something actionable because it didn’t seem reasonable. There was no good reason. The guy was really nice. The job paid really well. The boss always spoke pleasantly to us. We were interested in that major. What else were we going to do?

All along the rat-brain was there, concerned with psychic survival as much as with physical survival, squeaking away, saying this is no way to live. And really, it wasn’t necessarily that we weren’t listening. We just didn’t know how to talk to those around us about it, so we wouldn’t sound crazy.

“I’m sorry Mom, I don’t know why I just ran away and left that poor guy with the cast standing there stranded. I guess you just didn’t raise me right.”

And the longer you stay in the wrong marriage, or with the evil boss, the longer you freeze while the guy with the bomb walks toward you, the longer you go on hiking with the husband who can’t smell the bear and who won’t listen to you, who can, the more reckoning you’ll have to do with the rat, later. It’s as if you tied up your rat and let Ted Bundy hack away at it, in slow motion.

When all it was trying to do was save your life.


Birdies indoor2

I’ve been talking about combat trauma and murder and rape and adultery and poor life decisions as if they were all in the same category, and in a way I think they are. I think the rat starts squeaking whenever it’s uneasy, whenever it sees harm coming, whether it’s a blow to the body or the psyche. It knows when a spouse is toxic for you on any level, and it knows when you’re trying to sabotage yourself.

Maybe some rats get over-vigilant, over-traumatized, themselves. Maybe some, too long in the dark, despair.

Maybe I should have divided this into several smaller posts.

Oh well. Then I probably wouldn’t have got around to them.

Anyway, I think I’ll try letting my rat loose now. See what its favorite food is. See what life looks like if we we can learn to work together. See if, as the rat heals, maybe some of my bitterness over the things I haven’t been able to get over will ease.

I might get to know the lizard after this, start talking to the bird.

2 thoughts on “Trust Your Instincts

  1. Pingback: Standout Reads 2013 | Claudia Putnam

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