a person sits on a rock in a river at sunset and practices interoception and mindfulness

Interoception & Body Mindfulness

Hi, everyone. Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist, and I wanted to take some time to talk about interoception and mindfulness. What we know from research is that that interoception is highly changeable. Many of the studies that have found success in changing the interoceptive experience used different forms of mindfulness. In other words, mindfulness is shown to successfully enhance or improve our interoceptive connection and understanding.

Inside & Outside Mindfulness Exercises

When seeking to support a client’s interoceptive awareness via mindfulness, I’ve found it helpful to think about mindfulness in two categories: outside mindfulness and inside mindfulness.

Noticing Out: Outside Mindfulness

The first category I like to call outside mindfulness, and it includes mindful activities that invite our attention outside of our body– noticing things outside or in the external world. For example, mindfully noticing all the sounds or sights in our environment, or mindfully noticing the sound of a fading chime sound. This is noticing out.

Noticing In: Inside or Body Mindfulness

There is also a second category of mindfulness which invites us to notice in. I like to call this inside mindfulness, or body mindfulness. It’s all about noticing what’s going on in our body, how our body is feeling, etc. When we are aiming to support interoception, we want to make sure that the mindfulness activities we’re using are body focused. It’s all about noticing in, it’s helping that person to connect to, explore and understand their inner sensations.

Traditional Body Mindfulness: A Mismatch for Many

We know mindfulness, specifically noticing in with body mindfulness, is very helpful for enhancing our interoceptive experience. However, many people find traditional body mindfulness to be a mismatch for their current experience in the world. Here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Attention: Many forms of traditional mindfulness require a high degree of attention, which can be really challenging for so many people, myself included. To maintain that attention on my body for a period of time can be really, really hard. Of course mindfulness experts teach us that it is okay for your attention to drift away from your body and we can gently bring it back to focus when possible. But still, it doesn’t make it any less challenging!!
  2. Abstract directions: Traditional forms of body mindfulness require a certain degree of cognition and ability to follow abstract directions. For example, the invitation to notice the inside of the body. Well, I can’t see the inside of my body. And if I have a muted interoceptive experience, I might not even be able to feel the inside of my body. So now I’m being invited to notice something I can’t see nor feel. That’s really abstract.
  3. Unsafe relationship with the body: Traditional forms of body mindfulness assume that a person has a safe relationship with their body, and that is not the case for many people; many of my clients included. They might be living in a body that is chronically dysregulated—not many people are motivated to focus on an overwhelmed or stressed out body. Or they might have a history of trauma and their body does not feel like a safe place to focus that attention.

We really need to think critically about the body mindfulness activities we’re offering. In many cases, adapting traditional body mindfulness can make it more successful and accessible to a wider variety of people.

How to Adapt Body Mindfulness

So, just how do we adapt traditional forms of body mindfulness? We have lots of ideas on this. We have a series of strategies called Interoceptive Awareness Builders, or IA Builders for short. Our IA Builders are all versions of adapted body mindfulness. There’s a framework for using our IA Builders called the Interoception Curriculum, which walks someone through a sequential way of using our IA Builders. We’ve been working hard to put evidence behind these IA Builders. Check out our research here.

Some of the key adaptations we’ve discovered over time include:

  1. Chunk that mindfulness work into one body part at a time. For example, noticing how your hands feel, or your feet feel, or how your heart feels. This can reduce the cognitive load and provide a more succinct goal. 
  2. Start with external body parts and work your way inside. Noticing body parts that are on the outside of your body can be easier and more concrete for some people. These body parts, like your nose, eyes, ears, skin can be observed while the person is also trying to notice how they’re feeling. Once a person has practice noticing these external body parts, one at a time, then we slowly work the way inside, to body parts that are a little bit more abstract because you can’t see them. 
  3. Ensure full body autonomy: Our IA Builders are always presented as an invitation to participate. They are never a demand that we’re placing on someone and requiring completion. We want to make sure each person experiences full body autonomy and control over the process. Respect refusals and think critically about why that person does not want to use the IA builders? That refusal will be different for everyone—perhaps they don’t feel safe enough in the current environment to shift their attention internally; perhaps their body is not regulated enough; perhaps the way the IA Builder is presented needs to be altered. 
  4. Support communication: Support a person in describing their inner experience via a way that is meaningful to their experience. Stay open to the diverse human experience and offer a variety of language supports until you help each client find a match for their experience. They might identify their inner sensations with shapes or colors or animals or in words such as hot, cold, sticky, wet, dry. 
  5. Evoke body sensations in playful ways: One of our biggest learning lessons is to make this work playful and engaging. Especially by using activities that are potentially evoking a stronger feeling in the body–and inviting attention during these activities. We use a lot of play, even with our adult clients. For example, squeezing a ball of putty and noticing how your hands feel while you’re squeezing, or dancing to a favorite song for 3 minutes and noticing how your heart feels. Embedding body mindfulness during activities that might be evoking a stronger sensation can help with that attention piece–the increased strength of the signal helps capture the attention. 

So until next time, take care.

Want to take a deeper dive into mindfulness and IA builders? Check out the Interoception Curriculum here.

the interoception curriculum can help with interoception and mindfulness