Years ago, when I was in therapy for constantly screaming at my kids, my therapist asked me if I noticed any changes in my body right before I was about to lose it. I had no idea what she was talking about. She told me the next time I lost my temper, to pay attention to my body. Did my shoulders tense? Did I get sweaty? Did my stomach clench? Did my body do these things right before I lost my temper? If in the future I noticed these signals, I may be able to realize that I may be headed toward an explosion and either preemptively stop or remove myself from the situation.
Only now as I’m researching and writing this article am I realizing that my therapist was teaching me how to use interoception — using my body’s feedback to not only identify my emotional state, but to regulate it as well.
It is this very concept of interoception that an increasing body of evidence shows that the signals our body sends our brain play a significant role in helping us regulate our emotions and combat anxiety and depression.
What is interoception?
Interoception is your unconscious and conscious awareness of your body’s internal state. If that sounds a little too out there for you, think of it this way: the unconscious awareness encompasses signals from your internal organs to your brain whereas the conscious awareness is being physically aware of your body state (e.g.: the tenseness of your shoulders or the cramping of your back).
Just like your body has receptors in your muscles and joints to inform you of where your body parts are, your body also has receptors inside your organs (such as your skin and internal organs) that inform your brain about the inside of your body. These receptors help regulate bodily functions like temperature, heart rate, thirst, digestion, and hunger.
Why is this important? Well, basically, your brain’s job is to respond to various stressors and stimuli and keep your body in a steady state (homeostasis.) This process is called allostasis and is a very efficient internal system that tries to anticipate what your body needs and then attempt to satisfy your body’s needs ASAP.
Plus, it helps you figure out and understand what’s happening inside of you. Ideally, you will pay attention to your body’s signals and know if you need to take deep breaths or pee or scratch or if your heart is too fast or off-beat.
In other words, interoception is your body’s representation of all the signals from your body and the key to your thoughts, emotions, decision making, and your very sense of self.
It plays a part in various mental illnesses
While many of the signals are involuntary — for example, you’re not consciously regulating your blood sugar levels — many of these physical sensations can manifest in such a way that you can become aware of them. For instance, you can notice that drop in your stomach or your heart rate spiking or your shoulders tensing. The noticing of these physical responses is one thing — interpreting why your body is reacting in such a manner is another thing entirely — and can majorly affect your wellbeing.
Let’s say you see an aggressive dog barking at you. Your heart might race or your body may tense up, preparing to run away. These physical reactions happen before you’re aware of any emotional response, and it’s only when your brain recognizes how your body has changed that you experience your fear that your behavior may change. Without that interchange between your body and your brain, your feelings — fear, joy, sadness, or excitement — wouldn’t exist.
“Researchers and clinicians are recognising interoception as a key mechanism to mental and physical health, where understanding our body’s signals helps us understand and regulate emotional and physical states,” Dr. Helen Weng of the University of California San Francisco told The Guardian.
As for how in tune with your body you are — your interoception, as it were — there are exercises you can undergo to measure your own abilities. Like all senses, there is a spectrum of normal, and no surprise, the better people can detect their body’s signals, the better they are able to regulate their emotions. (Which totally tracks because the better you are at identifying how you feel about a scenario, the better you will be at making good decisions on how to deal with the situation.)
As expected, interoception may play a huge role in many mental illnesses. For example, many people with depression often show poorer awareness on detecting their heartbeats and for them, the reduced ability to feel their body’s signals may be a reason they feel lethargic or numb because they can’t feel anything. In people with anxiety, however, many can detect their body’s signals but misread and misinterpret the readings such as thinking a small change in heart rate is much bigger than it actually is, leading them to panic even more.
As a result, new therapies addressing interoception are being studied to see if improving patients’ sense of interoception would decrease feelings of stress. In a recently published study of 121 autistic adults, researchers reported the adults who received interoceptive training demonstrated much lower incidences of anxiety at their 3-month follow up — with 31% recovering completely from their anxiety disorder as compared to 16% in the control group. The team disclosed they saw similar benefits in an unpublished study in a more diverse student population.
How can we use this to affect our emotions?
Interoception as a concept sounds great and all, but what does that mean? How can it be useful for us as humans? (And also, how can it help our kids?) Here are two suggestions:
Experts are looking into using mindfulness to help people develop their interoception senses as they focus on the internal body’s signals in different areas of the body.
Not only aerobic exercise but strength training have been found to effectively reduce feelings of anxiety. The theory is that not only does exercise change the signals your body is giving your brain, it also helps you pay more attention to your body’s actual signals!
In my case, I began to notice how I would get super sweaty, my stomach would churn, everything would get too bright, and I would get super antsy. I would feel pressure build up in my chest and feel incredibly uncomfortable until I exploded in a fury — thus releasing that pressure. Once I noticed my body responding in such a manner, I would either warn my children that I needed a break because I was about to kaboom splat, or I would excuse myself from the situation.
So, if you find yourself losing it regularly or having difficulty managing your emotions and mental health, give interoception a try. Perhaps by listening to your body and what it’s telling you, you will not only take yourself more seriously, but your mental and physical health may also improve.