What Exactly Is Interoception?
Interoception is a sense that allows us to feel sensations from the inside of our bodies.
For example, interoception enables you to feel your stomach: is it growling or is it fluttery? Is it full or maybe nauseous?
Interoception also allows you to sense if your heart is pounding fast or beating slowly.
Interoception helps you to feel other areas of your body, too, like your lungs, muscles, bladder, brain, bones, and even the whites of your eyes.
Noticing our body’s feelings is important because it allows us to know exactly what emotion we are experiencing. For example,
- A growling stomach could be a signal that we are hungry.
- A dry feeling in the mouth or throat lets us know that we might be thirsty.
- Loose muscles and a slowly beating heart might indicate feeling calm and relaxed.
How Do I Know What I’m Feeling?
Interoception provides a connection between the mind and the body. Basically, your body feels a certain way, and your brain uses that information to help you identify what emotion you’re experiencing.
How do you know when you are hungry? Many people might notice certain feelings in their digestive systems or bodies, like…
- a growling stomach
- sluggish muscles
- “foggy brain”
How do you know when you are sleepy? For some people, they may notice…
- drooping eyes
- heavy muscles
- feeling slow and lethargic
The same could be said for emotions like anxiety or frustration. If you’re feeling anxious, you might notice:
- a tight feeling in your chest
- a racing heart
- shaky muscles
If you’re feeling frustrated, you might notice:
- tight muscles
- an overall feeling of being hot
- your voice may be louder, and your tone may be sharper than usual
Many of us don’t really stop and think about these body-emotion connections until we start talking about interoception, but these connections are important for many different reasons.
Interoceptive Awareness: Do You Notice Your Inner Sensations?
We all have different degrees or levels of how aware we are of our interoception signals—those feelings coming from the inside of our bodies. Some of us are more aware of the way our bodies feel, while others may be less aware.
Those people who are a little bit less aware of their body clues or the internal feelings coming from their bodies often miss out on very valuable clues that give them information about what emotion they’re feeling. For example…
- If you miss out on the feeling of a growling stomach, you are missing a very important clue that’s letting you know that you’re hungry and it’s time to eat.
- If you miss out on the feeling of a full, heavy stomach, you’re missing out on a clue that’s letting you know that you are full and you need to stop eating.
- If you miss out on the feelings of tight hands, tense muscles, and maybe overall sweaty skin, you’re missing out on valuable clues letting you know that you are starting to feel frustrated.
In science, sometimes, it’s said that these people have low levels of interoceptive awareness. All that means is that for these certain individuals, they just are less aware of their internal sensations. For some, this disconnect between the body’s signals and the brain’s interpretation of those signals has been suggested to underlie certain conditions, such as:
- Panic disorder or panic attacks
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Somatic symptom disorder
- Illness anxiety disorder
However, just because a person may have one or more of these conditions does not mean they have lower interoceptive awareness, and vice versa. The good news is that research clearly shows that there are certain strategies that can be used to improve interoceptive awareness or for these people to improve the ability for them to notice and understand their body clues.
On the other hand, some people are overly aware of their internal sensations or have really heightened interoceptive awareness. They report various experiences, including…
- For some people, the smallest sensation can be very, very intense. Even a minor cut or a little bump can be experienced as a very, very extreme pain sensation. It can cause them to become very emotionally overwhelmed because their body is responding in this intense way.
- Others may report that they feel so many different internal sensations all at once because they are so sensitive to everything that’s happening within their These sensations can be either very distracting or very overwhelming and confusing.
I once had a client tell me that the inside of her body feels like a glitter timer (in which you shake it really fast, and the glitter goes everywhere). That’s what the inside of her body feels like to her, and it becomes really difficult to pay attention or to figure out what body clue is the most important to pay attention to.
Those body signals serve as really important clues to our emotions. It was really difficult for this client to figure out exactly what she was feeling because she was feeling way too much going on inside of her body.
The good news is that interoceptive awareness can be improved, and these improvement strategies are research-based.
Interoception & Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is just a big, fancy word that describes your ability to control the way that you feel and keep your body feeling as comfortable as possible.
Interoception is absolutely essential in our ability to regulate our emotions. I hear so many times from a lot of my clients that they are able to memorize lots of different strategies that they’ve been taught over time that help them to control emotions like anxiety or anger. Some of these strategies could include…
- taking deep breaths
- asking for help
- going for a walk
They can memorize these coping strategies just fine, but it is very hard when it comes time to use these coping skills in the moment.
The reason why a lot of times this happens for my clients is because they really struggle with that interoceptive awareness—their ability to notice the way their body feels. For example, if they fail to notice a high heart rate or tight muscles, they may not realize they are anxious or angry. Connecting the reactions of the human body to how they’re feeling would be what should urge them into action and to use these coping skills that they have learned over time.
But because they’re missing these important body clues, they are missing important information to help urge them into action and use these coping skills. So, the coping skills just become these sets of memorized strategies that they have a really hard time applying in the moment. That’s why step one of emotional regulation is building interoceptive awareness. Once you have good interoceptive awareness, it becomes more effective to learn coping strategies to use in the moment.
Can Interoception Be Improved?
A frequently asked question that I hear from many people is: can interoception be improved? Can you enhance your interoceptive awareness so that your inner experience is clear, and your body signals provide you with reliable information?
The good news is yes, interoception can be improved, and that is very well established in research. Almost all of us can do things that enhance our interoceptive awareness or our ability to notice and understand the feelings coming from the inside of our bodies.
One of the most well-established methods of improving interoceptive awareness is something called mindfulness. Many people are familiar with this word—it just means being able to pay attention to the present moment in a specific way. And when we talk about mindfulness, and interoception specifically, it is paying attention to your body in a certain way.
Body mindfulness can be a very hard and abstract thing to learn to do—to be able to pay attention to your body, especially the inside of your body—when it’s something that you can’t see or feel. But what we’re doing is taking mindfulness and making it very concrete and helping people to learn in a slow and controlled way…
- to be more mindful
- to be more present
- to pay more attention to their inner body signals
We also have strategies in place to help people start to learn, understand, and link the sensations within their bodies to the emotion that they are experiencing, building those very important body-emotion connections that we’ve discussed.
Until next time.
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