For many of us, understanding our own emotions can be a very complex or complicated task. Luckily, our bodies provide many vital clues to our emotions. For example, tense muscles could be a clue that we are frustrated or a racing heart could be a clue that we are anxious. However, many adults and children are not in tune with these inner body signals. Missing these essential clues can make the emotional experience unclear, leading to difficulty managing emotions. That’s where interoception and self-regulation come into play.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions. To develop self-regulation skills, you first need to understand its foundation—interoception. If you’re reading this blog, it’s very likely that you already know that interception is a sense that provides insight into how our bodies are feeling. Interoception helps us to answer the question, “how do I feel?” at any given moment. This awareness of how we feel leads us to be able to manage or regulate emotion(s) effectively.
The problem with interoception is that many of us do not take the time to focus on what may actually be going on with our bodies, thus missing vital clues to our emotions. Luckily, to build this important foundation of self-regulation, there are simple exercises to practice that can really help you, your children, and/or your clients tune into body signals.
In today’s post, we want to take the time to go over a few of our favorite daily activities to help build interoception for better self-regulation skills. It’s crucial that we understand how to tune in to our bodies, even as adults, to become more aware of how we feel so that we can manage our feelings more effectively.
How Practicing Self-Regulation Can Make Long-Term, Positive Effects
Before we dive into how to build self-regulation, let’s talk about how it can make a positive impact on understanding your emotions.
As children, we learn through our senses, including interoception. We learn that touching something hot can be painful, that jumping in a puddle can make our skin wet, or that staring at the sun for too long can hurt our eyes. As we grow, we become more knowledgeable about these physical body signals and can learn to use them as clues to our emotions.
When it comes to self-regulation, we may start to look deeper into these body signals and learn what actions help us to promote comfortable feeling body signals and thus regulate our emotions. For example, eating a sandwich may make our growling stomach feel better; a hug from a caregiver may slow our heart rate; putting on a jacket can reduce our shivering muscles. Over time, with a lot of exploration and practice, we begin to learn what activities make our bodies feel good, thus developing the ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation allows us to be more resilient. We’re able to bounce back from adversity more quickly and even develop more quality relationships with those around us. Self-regulation is essential to promoting positive mental health in ourselves as well as generations to come.
Practicing to tune into our body signals to enhance self-regulation skills is essential for us all. However, research finds that it is especially helpful for anyone with autism, anxiety, depression, a trauma history, eating disorders, toilet training difficulties, sensory processing disorder, or behavioral challenges. When we can better manage our emotions, we can better participate and thrive during daily life activities.
Activities to Help Develop Self-Regulation
As mentioned, in order to develop self-regulation skills, we need to start at the beginning, at the foundation—interoception. There are formal, more structured approaches to developing interoception and self-regulation. For example, The Interoception Curriculum provides a step-by-step framework for developing interoception. This resource is created specifically for professionals seeking to support self-regulation growth in their clients. On the other hand, there are many informal strategies caregivers looking to help develop self-regulation can use with their children, or even in their own lives. The following are some of our favorite, easy to use, self-regulation builders:
- Use Body Talk: Label the way your body feels during daily activities (e.g., “My muscles feel loose when you cuddle me; my heart feels fast when I play tag with you”). Not only are you serving as a good model, but body talk also naturally tunes you in to your body signals.
- Build Body Curiosity: Teach your child or client to notice how their body feels during daily activities (e.g., “how does this make your hands feel? How does this make your stomach feel?”)
- Directly Teach that Body Signals are Clues to Emotions: (e.g., “you said your muscles are wiggly, and your voice sounds loud, what emotion could that mean?; You said your stomach is growling. That could be a clue to what emotion?; What does your heavy feeling eyes mean?”)
Any time is a good time to use these self-regulation strategies, but it’s much easier to tune in when body signals are stronger. For example, we have a printable resource of daily interoception activities that you can use to improve interception and self-regulation. This list provides sample activities that may evoke stronger body signals within 15 different body parts. You can use this worksheet to help you, your child, or client focus on a specific body part in correspondence to the related activity to better learn how it feels.
Just remember that this is all about learning while doing, not learning while being. Interoception-based work is a form of adapted mindfulness that is active and playful, making it better suited for a wider variety of people. And the earlier you start this work with children, the more success they’ll have in developing healthy practices of how to tune into their body and emotions. We even have an online course that revolves around interoception for early learners!
What’s the Next Step?
After you or your child becomes proficient with noticing body signals and using them as clues to their emotions, you can move onto the next step—understanding what makes the body feel good or comfortable.
Comfortable feelings are different for every person, so it’s essential we hone in on what makes our bodies feel good. Some of us may experience enjoyment from swimming, cuddling our pet, or resting on the beach, while other feel-good activities will look entirely different for someone else. Understanding what makes the body feel good will help develop personalized coping skills and is helpful for warding off stress or other overwhelming emotions. All of this knowledge is essential to effective self-regulation.
Ready to Learn More About Improving Self-Regulation?
The most important thing to remember is that you need to be aware of your emotions before you can control them. That’s why we need interoception to be mindful of your feelings and body signals, and why developing that ability is essential to understanding the clues your body is giving you.
There are a plethora of online resources that we have available to you to help you learn more about interoception and self-regulation. We have the curriculum bundle, which is The Interoception Curriculum: A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Mindful Self-Regulation, as well as other publications, online courses, and a variety of downloadable and viewable resources.