Interoception is a sense that provides information about the internal condition of our body—how our body is feeling on the inside. Interoception allows us to experience many body sensations such as a growling stomach, dry mouth, tense muscles or racing heart. Awareness of these body sensations enables us to experience essential emotions such as hunger, fullness, thirst, pain, body temperature, need for the bathroom, sexual arousal, relaxation, anxiety, sadness, frustration and safety.
At the most basic level, interoception allows us to answer the question, “how do I feel?” in any given moment.
Interoception also helps us manage the way we feel, by prompting us to take action based on the body signals we notice.
For example, noticing a growling stomach serves as a clue that we are hungry and encourages us to eat. Noticing a tight or heavy stomach lets us know that we are full and that it’s time to stop eating. Noticing shivering muscles or goosebumps on the skin serves as a clue that we are cold and prompts us to look for a sweater. Noticing a tight chest, racing heart and tense muscles lets us know that we are anxious and urges us to seek comfort.
Now, think about what would happen if your interoception system was not functioning as it should. What if you were unable to feel what was happening in your body? Or what if your internal sensations were so overwhelming that you could not figure out what they mean?
Unfortunately, this is a reality for many people with conditions such as autism, anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, obesity, toilet training difficulties, sensory processing disorder and behavioral challenges.
How Understanding the Role of Interoception Can Help
For many years, I used traditional approaches to helping my clients manage their emotions, only to fall short most of the time. Something was not quite working. My clients would make some improvements, but still had a difficult time moving through life feeling comfortable and achieving a state of emotional well-being.
Discovering the role interoception plays in understanding how we feel significantly changed my approach. Many of my clients were struggling with interoception and making sense of their emotions. Therefore, how could I expect my clients to be successful at managing the way they feel if they didn’t know how they are feeling to begin with?
Over the years, incorporating interoception into the supports provided has allowed me to serve my clients with greater success. Research states that interoception can be improved and I see this on a daily basis with my clients.
Mindfulness practices have been shown to be one of the most effective, evidence-based interventions for improving interoceptive awareness. Interestingly mindfulness is shown to activate the insula, the interoceptive center in the brain. That is why those who practice meditation often have superior levels of interoception.
Although mindfulness has many wonderful benefits, including increasing awareness of body sensations, mindfulness can be very abstract and difficult for many people.
Therefore, we have worked to adapt mindfulness practices, creating strategies that work well for many different learning styles. These strategies, known as IA Builders, modify abstract mindfulness concepts into concrete, visual, interactive and engaging tactics that improve interoception.
Seeing the results these IA Builders had on my clients led me to share my new insights in the book entitled Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System. I also share information and techniques to improve interoception in workshops around the world.
Now the brand new follow-up book, The Interoception Curriculum: A Step-by-Step Framework for Developing Mindful Self-Regulation, is designed to help educators and therapists take this work a step further by adopting a systematic interoception-based approach to support behavior and self-regulation.