5 Ways Interoception Science Keeps Me Shifting Forward

Hi, everyone. Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist, and I wanted to take some time to talk about how interoception science helps me to continue growing. It keeps me shifting forward, learning, becoming a better therapist, a better parent, a better partner, and, hopefully, a better human being. Interoception science, if I’m really honest, has taught me a lot and has helped me grow in many areas. So, I’m going to pick the top five.

1. Having Fair Self-Regulation Expectations

Area number one helps me to think about self-regulation. Specifically, are my expectations of self-regulation really fair? Thinking about a person’s inner experience, their interoceptive awareness (IA), that process of:

  • noticing our body signals,
  • connecting our body signals to the meaning,
  • and also regulating our body signals.

That’s the definition of interoceptive awareness, and we know that IA is infused into every step of the self-regulation process. So, if someone is experiencing an unreliable or uncertain inner experience, it is really unfair of us to set or expect these self-regulation goals. I think self-regulation is a really important goal, but we have to think, “Is it a realistic and fair expectation for a person’s current IA experience?”

For example, in my work in the schools, I see lots of self-regulation goals. Perhaps it is a goal for the student to request a break independently or seek out a sensory strategy independently. These are all self-regulation goals. They require clear interoceptive awareness.

If a person doesn’t have that solid IA foundation, then what are we left with? We’re left with co-regulation, where they’re relying on other people in their lives, those trusted safe people, to help them identify and manage their body needs.

We really need to use that IA science to establish fair self-regulation expectations. If someone is currently working on building that clear inner experience, we need to be offering more co-regulation, and that brings me to area number two.

2. The Importance of Co-Regulation

Oh my goodness, how important co-regulation is for all of us. I’ve known for quite some time that co-regulation is important, but to be completely transparent, I never realized just how important co-regulation is.

When we respond to someone and offer meaningful co-regulation, we are sending a message that their inner experience is worthy of attention, that their inner experience is important enough for us to pay attention to as well as for them to pay attention to. It’s showing someone empathetic kindness and it is building IA. 

I hear a lot of worry surrounding the act of responding–especially when responding to someone in distress.  I hear questions like, “Well, responding, isn’t that coddling?” or “If you respond or give them attention won’t that reinforce a ‘negative behavior’?” The answer is no to both of those questions. When you respond to a person that is in need of co-regulation, you are sending that message that they are worthy. Their insides are worthy of attention. Plus it is just downright kind.

3. The Dangers of Compliance 

Area number three is so important. Compliance derails the interoceptive awareness experience.

There are a lot of people talking about the dangers of compliance, thankfully. Compliance is problematic for so many different reasons, and what is coming to light is just how problematic compliance is to our inner experience. Essentially, compliance approaches are teaching us that we need to ignore what our body needs in that moment in order to please another person, to meet their demands, to get their reinforcer. It’s conditioning someone to ignore what their body needs in order to please other people. We’re sending a message that other people’s needs are more important than our own needs, our own body’s needs.

So when consistently subjected to a compliance approach, it can be really difficult to build a solid foundation of IA. If you spend your ignoring your interoceptive signals in order to survive, it can have long term effects on the relationship or understanding of your own unique IA experience. 

4. Interoception can be changed

IA is highly changeable. I’ve heard questions like, “Can interoception be changed?” or “Are there research studies out there looking at changing interoceptive awareness?” The resounding answer is yes.

In the literature, it is very clear that interoception is a highly changeable experience, and one of the most powerful ways of changing our interoceptive awareness, helping us to understand our inner experience in a more clear way, is something called body mindfulness.

Simply put, body mindfulness is paying attention to how our body feels in the current moment. There’s a lot of literature out there showing just how important body mindfulness is to many different areas. There is a very big connection between body mindfulness and enhancing interoceptive awareness.

If you’re thinking “Oh, body mindfulness. I’ve tried that. It’s not a match for me. It’s not a match for my clients” you’re not alone. I was with you in that same place. I have tried traditional forms of mindfulness. It’s not a match for me currently. Also, for a lot of my clients, traditional forms of body mindfulness are not a match for a variety of reasons. But, guess what? We are having amazing outcomes with adapted forms of body mindfulness. The Interoception Curriculum provides a step-by-step process for nurturing IA via an adapted body mindfulness approach. 

the interoception curriculum

5. The Relationship Between Interoception and Emotions 

Area number five is all about emotions and the relationship between interoception and emotions. My understanding in this area could potentially be the biggest shift I’m currently working on

Interoception science has really shifted my understanding, my previous understanding, of emotions. I thought that most people understood emotion words, and I also thought that if I went around labeling my clients’ emotions, it would help them understand how they can feel better. As it turns out, neither of these are true.

There are so many aspects of emotions that have been blown out of the water by interoception science. We know that the emotional experience is so diverse amongst human beings, amongst neurotypes, and we’re getting really granular in our discussions about just how different each one of us comes to experience the way our body feels. Some of us might put an emotion word to those interoceptive sensations, others might not. So, this is one area that we are really exploring in depth and learning more about. One thing is clear—we all have a unique inner experience and we are correct and valid in that experience.

Until next time.

Want to learn more about shifts we can all be making to stay up to date? Check out this Q&A Mini Series all about Implementing a Neuro-affirming Model!

Live Session Dates:

  • Session 1: June 5th, 2023 @ 12:30-1:30 EST(available for replay for 2 weeks following)
  • Session 2: July 10th, 2023 @ 12:30-1:30 EST(available for replay for 2 weeks following)
  • Session 3: August 14th, 2023 @ 12:30-1:30 EST(available for replay for 2 weeks following)