Interoception: The Science of Physical & Emotional Pain

Hi everyone, Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist. We are talking about a really big topic and that is the impact between our health, including our physical health and emotional health, and its connection to interoception. Want to learn more about the science of physical and emotional pain? Read more below.

Physical Pain & Interoception

We know that interoception has such a vital influence on both our physical and emotional health. So let’s start by talking about our physical health. Our bodies are designed to send us important messages about how our body is feeling and what the condition of our body it. That’s all happening because of this sense called interoception. Interoception is how we are able to feel sensations coming from our body which tell us important information about what our body needs for health and wellbeing. For example, we feel pain because of interoception. Pain is a response that’s happening within our body that alerts us that something is off, that something is going on within our body; especially in cases of acute pain.

Maybe you have an injury and that acute signal of pain can alert us that something is off in our body and that we need to do something to take care of it. In cases of chronic pain, interoception is also at play. Many times, people that experience chronic pain are sent messages by people that mean well, but maybe their body has a faulty messaging system. Because of this, they begin to mistrust their body. They begin to really disconnect many times from their body because of their chronic pain. It’s important to work on noticing and beginning to trust these sensations that are coming from our body. This has an incredible impact on our long term physical health. Really taking the time to notice and to understand our interoceptive signals is vital to being able to successfully care for our body’s needs.

The Interoception Curriculum Master Bundle provides a helpful framework to use in adult rehab settings to support clients that experience chronic pain. Based on adapted body mindfulness, this robust set of resources help clients to nurture a trusting connection with their bodily sensations.

Emotional Pain & Interoception

The same holds true on the emotional side of things. These interoceptive signals are also giving us clues not only to the physical condition of our body, but the emotional condition of our body. How is our emotional wellbeing? Are we feeling comfort? Are we feeling discomfort? Are we being able to understand these messages coming from our body so that we know what our body needs to promote as much comfort as possible? Maybe it’s noticing a certain feeling in your body. For me, I get a really tight feeling in my chest when I’m getting anxious, and being more aware of that has helped me begin to manage my anxiety in a more successful way.

Until figuring that out, I was a person that wasn’t really slowing down and listening to the messages that my body sent me; that includes both the physical health side and the emotional health side. I tended to push through. Be tough. Don’t listen to my body. No pain, no gain. All of these things are sending us messages. “Don’t listen to your body, what your body’s telling you is not important.” What we’re finding now through this interoception science is that the opposite is true. We do need to take the time to slow down, to notice the way our body feels, and do that in a way that feels safe to our own nervous system and bodies.

There’s no right or wrong way to start tuning in to notice the way your body feels. There’s also no right or wrong way for your body to feel. And we really need to celebrate how uniquely different all of our bodies are. I think that we’re getting a little bit better, but for so long, many people have had their inner experiences invalidated, and we need to get better at validating each person’s personal inner experience.

Until next time.

Want to take a deeper dive into interoception, pain, and emotional well-being? Check out our on-demand course!