Interoception: The unknown superstar of the sensory world

If I asked you to tell me about our senses, what would you say? Probably most people would go for the big five: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. If you know a bit about sensory processing you might also know about what’s called our internal senses. Certainly when I trained I was taught there are two of these: vestibular (think spinning and balance) and proprioception (our sense of our body movement in space – pushing pulling, lifting, climbing). More recently, a lesser known sense has been in the spotlight: interoception. Interoception is the sense which gives us information about how our body is feeling. This includes feelings like pain, hunger or when we need to go to the toilet, as well as feelings that are associated with emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness. In this post I’d like to give you a quick overview of how this complex sense works, and why it is intrinsic to our mental health.

What is interoception?

Take a moment to consider how you are feeling in your body. Are you hot? Cold? Relaxed? Tense? Are you experiencing pain or discomfort? Are you hungry? Do you need the toilet? Are you anxious? Happy? Sad? Content?

All over your body, within all your major organs are loads of teeny tiny interoceptive receptors. These receptors feed information up into the insula, in the brain. We notice the body sensations. Growling stomach; heat; coldness; palpitations; pain; full bladder; heavy eyes. And we then interpret these sensations into useful information. And this clever system is how we answer that question. I am hungry. I am anxious. I have hurt myself. I am tired. I need the toilet.

Why is interoception important physically?

Interoception helps us to regulate our body effectively. Through interoception we can look after our most basic needs. We can eat when our body needs food and know when our body is full. We can even discern the kinds of foods our body is craving. We can stay hydrated and look after our digestive system. We know when we need to go to the toilet. We regulate our body temperature effectively by changing clothes or the environment as needed.

Interoception and mental health

How do you know when you are anxious, or sad, or happy or content? Emotions are tricky things to pin down. Interoception gives us that stability by rooting emotions in physical sensations. When we feel anxious, our body will tend to react in a particular way. Same with all emotions, though of course some are more subtle than others. Interoception is, in effect, the blueprint of emotional recognition. And if we can recognise emotions in ourselves, we can begin to work out how to manage emotions in ourselves. Recognising emotions in ourselves also gives us the basis for recognising emotions in others.

Difficulties with interoception

We tend to take interoception for granted when it is working well. But imagine how it might feel if you had a stomach ache but couldn’t place the feeling. Imagine if you cut your finger and the pain bothered you more than it should. Imagine if you only noticed needing the toilet when you were really desperate, every time. Difficulties with interoception can affect a lot of these every day issues in big ways.

In terms of emotions, struggling with interoception can mean that emotions are difficult to identify. Feeling heightened emotions can feel really confusing and scary. And managing emotions becomes really tricky if you can’t identify them. We can give these kids all sorts of strategies to manage their emotions. But if they’re struggling with interoception these strategies are unlikely to work. You need to know what the emotion is before you can apply a strategy to manage it. Interoceptive awareness has to come first.

What can help?

Interoception is not a new sense but its certainly new in terms of us as professionals recognising its importance. Evidence shows that mindfulness is a good way to increase interoceptive awareness. For kids, there is a great program designed by Kelly Mahler, an American Occupational Therapist, called the Interoception Curriculum. This is based in mindfulness, but is really accessible and kid-friendly too. There’s also more information on interoception on her website, so do take a look if you’re interested.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about this superstar sense. If you do need more support with interoceptive awareness for you or your child then we can help at Imagine Therapy so do take a look at our website or get in touch.

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