What is Interoception?
Sit back and relax. What are you feeling inside your body? Are you hungry? Do you need to go to the toilet? Is your heart racing? Are you breathing heavily? Do you have an itch?
These are senses that can be felt through the help of our interoceptive system.
Our interoceptive system enables us to feel pain, hunger, fullness, nausea, needing to go to the toilet, itch, physical exertion, coldness, heat, tickle and emotional states (excitement, anger, calmness or fear). Not only that, interoception allows us to identify and respond to what our body is telling us, for example, if your mouth and throat are feeling dry, we are able to understand that this is our body’s way of telling us we are thirsty. These signals and feelings are understood through interoception.
For people with good interoceptive awareness (IA), we are easily able to understand what our bodies are trying to tell us and we therefore act in response to this, in order to restore balance and comfort to our bodies. For example, if we feel our stomachs growling, we understand that this our body’s way of signaling we are hungry, and we therefore eat and restore balance in our bodies. However, for individuals who have lower levels of IA, it can be difficult to understand what our body is trying to signal and communicate. This can result in struggles in self-regulation, as we are unable to feel ourselves getting angry or upset until the emotion has already reached the point of eruption. Additionally, we all know how hard it can be to concentrate if our bodies are hungry and drained of energy. However, if we have low IA, we may not recognise hunger and are therefore unable to provide our body with what it needs to concentrate. If we are unable to understand our own body, this can lead to difficulties with socialising and developing empathy.
So how can we improve our IA?
Trying to label and highlight body language that correlates to emotions can be really helpful to assist someone in understanding what they are feeling. For example, pointing out to someone ‘I can see your hands are sweaty and your legs are moving, is your heart beating quickly? Does your stomach feel fluttery? I think you might be feeling nervous’. This can help someone to identify specific body language and correlate those indicators to feelings and emotions. Additionally, using a visual representation can be very helpful in recognising body signs and understanding what they mean. For example, you could draw a person with basic body parts (face, hands, stomach, heart, etc.) and have a list of sensations/descriptive words that allows someone to describe how a specific body part feels at that time (e.g. eyes; watery, itchy, dry).
Continue to add sensations with corresponding body parts and begin to label these sensations with meaning, for example;
• When your stomach is growling, it means you’re hungry
• When your eyes are itchy, it means you’re tired
• When your heart is beating quickly and your hands are sweaty, it means you’re nervous
• Can you add something about needing to go to the toilet here? Interoception is very connected to toileting
This allows an individual to feel, see and recognise what their body is trying to communicate, and understand how to respond.
While implementing these strategies can be helpful for many individuals, keep in mind that everyone is different and an approach that works for one person may not work for another. Feel free to be creative in your approach to improving IA, because through improving IA you have the potential to help someone to develop personally and socially to become the best person they can be.
If you are having any serious concerns, consult a your local healthcare professional. If you would like to know more about interoception and read real experiences of how improving IA has helped others, feel free to click on the links below;
Cusack, R, Dalgleish, T, Dunn, B, Evans, D, Galton, H, Lawrence, A, Meyer, M, Morgan, R, Oliver, C 2010, ‘Listening to Your Heart; How Interoception Shapes Emotion Experience and Intuitive Decision Making’, SAGE Journals; Psychological Science, vol. 21no. 12, pp. 1835-1844.
Goodall, E 2016, Interoception 101, Department of Education and Child Development South Australia, viewed 19 February 2018, <http://web.seru.sa.edu.au/pdfs/Introception.pdf>.
Mahler, K 2017, What is Interoception and How Does it Impact on Those with Autism?, Autism Awareness Centre Inc., viewed 17 February 2018, <https://autismawarenesscentre.com/what-is-interoception-and-how-does-it-impact-autism/>.
Morin, A 2016, Interoception and Sensory Processing Issues: What You Need to Know, Understood from Learning and Attention Issues, viewed 12 February 2018, <https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/interoception-and-sensory-processing-issues-what-you-need-to-know>.