How To Solve Dilemmas:
Using The Body To Take Wise Decisions

Are You Facing An ‘Impossible’ Choice?

Most of us, at some point in our lives, will find ourselves faced with a dilemma where all courses of action appear equally bad or difficult. We are called upon to make a bold decision, but we just can’t figure out which way to go.

At times like this we probably try to think through the problem carefully, weighing up the logic of each option. Sometimes we make lists of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’. Or we ask everyone around us what they think, hoping for a social ‘certificate of correctness’, or at least ‘majority approval’, for one course of action. We might seek ever more information so we can be certain one way or the other. Yet frequently, we find ourselves just going round and round in circles. Choosing the right direction seems impossible – we feel utterly stuck.

Of course, extreme scenarios aside, there is often no ‘correct’ answer to a dilemma. Both options are possible. We could, feasibly, get married or end the relationship; take up a new job offer or stay where we are; drop out of university or finish the course. Chances are, we will be able to build a life around whatever choice we make. Unfortunately this understanding of dual possibilities can then become part of the difficulty: we may fear a future where life is pleasant enough on the surface, but we are haunted by regrets for the path we didn’t choose.

Solving dilemmas - counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

But what if part of the problem is that all our ‘logical thinking’ and ‘scenario planning’ isn’t giving us the full picture? If we can’t think ourselves out of a dilemma, then what other options do we have?

The Hidden Intelligence Of The Body

For hundreds of years, we’ve been taught that our intelligence lies in our brain. And certainly, that’s where logic and conscious thought are based. But recent scientific advances show that the bigger picture of human intelligence is a far more complex, nuanced thing.

Take neurons, for example. Commonly recognised as the cells that make up much of our brains, we now know there are also many neurons elsewhere in the body. There are many in the heart. And there’s an especially large number spread out across the lining of the gut – so many, in fact, that if they were all clustered together they’d be approximately the size of a cat’s brain.

Then there are neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers which affect our emotions. The gut is home to large quantities of these, too. For example, serotonin is known as one of the body’s key ‘happiness hormones’, helping reduce depression and regulate anxiety. Over 90% of the body’s serotonin is located in the gut.

How The Gut Influences The Brain

The information from this ‘second brain’ in the gut is not wasted. The vagus nerve (one of the superhighways of the central nervous system) is dedicated to exchanging information between the brain and the heart, lungs and gut. And for every nerve fibre sending messages from the brain to the body, there are around nine nerve fibres sending messages from the body to the brain. This enables the body to process additional data about a situation and pass on a swift summary to the brain, so we can assess our environment much more completely and accurately.

Solving dilemmas - counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

Our ‘gut reaction’ to things often draws on information from past experience that we haven’t fully processed on a conscious, logical level. Vital understandings and nuances from our past learnings can be retained in the body, ready to be drawn on when needed.

Take, for example, when we meet someone new. We may pick up subtly positive micro-signals from that person which are below the level of conscious awareness, but which cause the gut to relax. That passes messages to the brain that this new situation is safe and can be approached with confidence – we ‘just know’ it’s OK to open up. When we meet someone else our gut may tense up. As that message of unease is passed to the brain, we may find ourselves talking more guardedly, or even considering how to protect ourselves physically. All without having to make a conscious assessment about anything.

Interoception: Gateway To The Body’s Wisdom

The body is constantly generating a complex range of internal sensations in response to our external experience. Our ability to detect this internal life of the body is called “interoception”. We may commonly notice sensations such as feeling hungry, or hot, or having an increased heart rate after exercise. Occasionally we may refer vaguely to our ‘gut feel’ about something. But to solve a dilemma, it can help to use our interoceptive awareness in a more nuanced, deliberate way.

Let’s say you have two possible courses of action. Find a quiet space, close your eyes, and imagine carefully taking one of these options. Think in detail what the outcome would look like – what is the new situation you’d find yourself in? Now check out what that FEELS like in your body. Take your time about this, and remember that some of our internal sensations are quite subtle, so you may need a few minutes to ‘tune in’ and notice what’s happening.

Perhaps you find a fluttering, or a tightness, or a heaviness somewhere. Maybe there are little pin-pricks, or heat, or spaciousness. Maybe there is numbness in one place, or an urge-to-move in another. Your insides might be solid like a rock, or sloshing like a washing machine. Note all the sensations carefully (you may find it helpful to write them down). If there is a word or phrase that seems to describe the sensations, such as ‘jittery’ or ’empty’ or ‘tangled’, make a note of that too.

Solving dilemmas - counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

Once you’re done, pause for a moment and come back to the present. Take a few deep breaths. Then, do the same with the other potential option in your dilemma. Imagine in detail the results of following it through, and where it would lead you. Again, check how it FEELS to be imagining yourself in that new situation. Notice not just the emotions, but also the physical sensations. Spend a few minutes really ‘feeling in’ to the interior world of your body.

Using What Your Body Tells You

Once you’ve done this exercise, you can use the information to re-assess your dilemma. Perhaps you realise that your body is clearly more at ease with one scenario. From a situation where logic said that both options were “Equal”, it can become very obvious that one path will feel far more comfortable than the other. The way forwards is now much clearer.

Or you may notice that your body is unsettled with both options, but the physical sensations are quite different in each case – for example with one you feel ‘constrained’ but with the other you feel ‘panicky’. Where logic simply labelled both options as “Bad”, the body shows how they are different, and that can help inform and free up your choices.

The actual decision you go on to make in this kind of situation will depend on how you translate the information from your body. In the above example, one person they may decide that being ‘constrained’ feels manageable, whereas living every day feeling ‘panicky’ would be impossible – so the first option is their better bet. For someone else, they may have been working for years to remove constraints in their life, and they may recognise the panic as an old echo from childhood which doesn’t need to rule them as an adult – so they might choose the second option.

Becoming A Wiser Person

This process of listening to the body is not about putting logic aside – it’s simply about acknowledging that as a human being, logic isn’t the only tool in our toolbox. By tapping into the intelligence of the body you are drawing on a rich and natural source of wisdom in your daily life. And the more you practise, the more fluid and easy it will feel.

This process won’t always be enough to deliver the 100% certainty we long for. Your future choices may still feel difficult. But your actions can be informed by having listened to the whole of you… and that, in itself, can bring some ease.

Solving dilemmas - counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgart

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Sarah Hamilton is a psychotherapist, counsellor and writer based in the Welsh borders.
She sees clients at her private clinic in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and also offers online therapy by secure video link.

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Counselling and Psychotherapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth