what is interoception

What Exactly Is Interoception?

Interoception is a sense that helps many people experience sensations from the inside of their body. These sensations are different for everyone. 

For example, interoception might enable someone to notice the condition of their stomach: is it growling or is it fluttery? Is it full or maybe nauseous? Or something else?

Or in another example, interoception might help someone to sense how their heart is feeling– is it pounding fast or beating slowly? Or maybe something else? 

Interoception can help many people to feel other areas of the body, like the lungs, muscles, bladder, brain, bones, and even the whites of the eyes.

 

Noticing these body sensations (or body signals) can be important because they give information about the condition of the body and what our body might need in the moment. For some people, these body signals can also serve as the foundation of what emotion they are currently experiencing. Again, the meaning of the body signals noticed will be different for everyone. The following are a few examples,

  • A empty, growling stomach could be a signal that a person is hungry.
  • A dry feeling in the mouth or throat could be a sign that a person is thirsty.
  • Loose muscles and a slowly beating heart might indicate a person is feeling relaxed.

How Do I Know What I’m Feeling?

Interoception provides a connection between the mind and the body. Basically, for some people, their body feels a certain way, and their brain uses that information to help them identify what their body needs and/or what emotion they are experiencing.

How do you know when you are hungry (or when your body needs food)? Do you notice specific specific body signals? Body signals are different for everyone. What your body feels like when you are hungry is likely different than what my body feels like when I am hungry. We are all correct and valid in our own experience. Some body signal examples might include: 

  • an empty feeling in the stomach
  • sluggish muscles
  • foggy brain
  • blurry eyes
  • shaky hands
  • overall irritability in body

How do you know when you are sleepy (or need sleep)? Again different for us all. Some body signals might include:

  • heavy, dry or droopy feeling eyes
  • heavy or slow muscles
  • unfocused brain
  • overall lethargic feeling in body

How do you know when you are anxious? The way your body feels when you are anxious is likely different from my experience. We are all valid in our interoceptive experience (even if we don’t notice any body signals!). Some examples of body signals might include:

  • a tight feeling in the chest
  • a racing heart
  • shaky muscles
  • too much ears
  • looping, circling brain
  • shut-off voice (words won’t come out)

Until recently, with the rapidly growing interoception science, many of us have not deeply pondered these body-emotion connections. Many bodies are sending signals that indicate comfort and discomfort–how good are we at listening?

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 sensations 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.

Lower Awareness–or a Muted Inner Experience

People who are a little bit less aware of their body signals or the internal sensation coming from their bodies often miss out on very valuable clues that give them information about what their body needs and/or what emotion they’re experiencing. For example…

  • If someone does not notice the body signals indicating hunger for them, they are missing important clues that let them know their body needs food and it’s time to eat.
  • If someone does not notice the body signals indicating fullness/satiety for them, they are missing important clues that let them know their body has had enough food and it’s time to stop eating.
  • If someone misses the body signals indicating when they are growing overwhelmed, they are missing important clues that there might be a meltdown coming soon.  

In science, sometimes, it’s said that these people experience lower levels of interoceptive awareness. We call it a muted inner experience where body signals might not be loud enough to reach a the place of ‘noticing’. For some with a muted interoceptive experience, they do notice body signals, but only when the body signals get to a very BIG place. So for example, they might only notice the feeling of hunger when they are ‘hangry’. Or they only notice the feeling of overwhelm when they are in a meltdown. People with a muted interoceptive experience report missing the subtle body signals indicating that a change is starting to occur in their body and are often blindsided by big sensations.  

Higher Awareness—or an Intense Inner Experience

On the other hand, some people are intensely 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 overwhelmed because their body is responding in this intense way.
  • Others report that they feel so many different internal sensations all at once and it can be hard to know which are important to pay attention to. 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 figure out what body signal is the most important in that moment.

 

The good news is that regardless of a person’s interoceptive profile, the inner experience can be enhanced. There is a lot of hope and learning that can happen.

Interoception & Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is just a big, fancy word that describes your ability to understand and manage the way that one feels and keep the body feeling as comfortable as possible.

Interoception is absolutely essential to the ability to regulate emotions. Many of my clients are able to memorize lots of different regulation strategies that people have taught them over time. Some of these strategies could include…

  • taking deep breaths
  • asking for help
  • going for a walk

They can memorize these regulation or coping strategies just fine, but it is very hard for them to use these regulation strategies in the moment. This is not a purposeful choice or an act of defiance! Rather it is a mismatch in support—a key component is missing (interoception!).

If a person has an unreliable interoceptive experience (either from a muted experience or intense intense experience or a mix of both), they are missing important body clues letting them know how their body is feeling. They are missing the clues letting them know that something is ‘off’ in their body. They are missing that urge to do something to help their body feel more comfortable. 

So, the regulation strategies become this set of memorized concepts that are missing the context of ‘when’ to use them. The person’s body is not reliably urging them to use the strategy (e.g., ‘oh, I notice how my body feels and based on how it feels, now would be a great time for me to try some deep pressure). It is unfair to expect someone to use self-regulation strategies without a reliable foundation of interoceptive awareness. That’s why step one of emotional regulation is building interoceptive awareness

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 the  inner experience is clear, and body signals provide reliable information?

The good news is yes, interoception can be enhanced, 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.

Want to take a deeper dive into Interoception? Check out all of our wonderful resources here. See below some of our favorites for learning the ins and outs of interoception.

On-Demand Course: A 3 Step Approach to Nurturing Interoceptive Awareness