Interoception: Our Felt Sense
Interoception our ability to “internally-sense”; such as the feelings of hunger, feeling the need for a “bio-break”, feeling our heart racing, or feeling ourselves getting anxious. Interoception can be compromised by negative conditioning. This conditioning can come in the form of verbal cues “only babies cry” resulting in a shame in expressing deep pain with tears. Other verbal cues such as “you’re not sick, you’re just faking it” resulting in a conditioned distrust of our somatic symptoms. It can also be compromised due to trauma and toxic stress. The good news is through contemplative somatic and cognitive techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga (contemplative movement) we can improve our connection with what is going on inside ourselves!
We wonder how someone can carry a child in the womb, sometimes up to childbirth, without even knowing they are pregnant. Someone can walk around day to day with clogged arteries causing the heart to work extremely hard yet not feel as if anything is wrong until they have a heart attack. Or…the person who goes to “work” every day absorbing horrible experiences subsequently they cannot feel nor control emotion. When our interoception is compromised we are less able to sense ourselves, both body and mind. Without interoceptive connection, we tend to react versus respond when facing adversity. Some folks have referred to this as emotional maturity but I propose this is not an effect of maturation but an effect of compromised neurological development or trauma. Interoception appears to be necessary for all aspects of emotional processing. Much of this evidence utilizes an individual differences approach to demonstrate that, across individuals, interoceptive sensitivity is correlated with emotional stability (Schandry, 1981), emotion regulation (Füstös et al., 2013), and emotional intensity (the tendency to experience more extreme emotions with greater awareness and depth of experience); (Füstös et al., 2013; Herbert et al., 2010; Pollatos et al., 2007a,b; Wiens et al., 2000).
Through the practice of contemplative somatic and cognitive techniques evidence has shown individuals can improve interoception and its adverse effects. Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga provide a safe environment where one is able to experience their internal feelings, thoughts, and attachments with curiosity and compassion. “Given the relevance that interoception has for psychological and physical health, it shows, mental training that involves the focus on body sensations improves several aspects of Interoceptive Awareness, and particularly that it strengthens participants’ use of body sensations to become more aware of emotions and to regulate distress.” According to Bornem N, Herbert, Mehling, and Singer (2014). These practices allow an individual to work on re-connecting and improving the mind-body connection. Throughout our “Western” culture this connection has been either dismissed as “woo-woo, hippie beliefs” or at least acknowledged as something which some people find important. Well, I’m here to tell you the lack of a mind-body-spirit connection will compromise all aspects of your life: From your physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, and relationship health. How can one know how to interact with those around us when we cannot even interact with what is going on within us? According to Farb, Daubenmeir, Price, Kerr, Dunn, and Mehlig (2015)
“Paralleling the findings of modern secular clinical science, contemplative science suggests that reflection on interoceptive processes is important for adaptive behavior (Wallace, 2007), as the embodied self is more fully realized through awareness of ongoing interoceptive interactions, two complementary senses emerge: presence, one’s connection to the moment, and agency, one’s ability to effect change, which is both foundational in determining a person’s sense of well-being.”
I have highlighted one portion of this quote to bring it to everyone’s attention. Without the ability to notice positive changes within ourselves we can never truly embrace our ability to change the world in which we live. Improvements in life are generally subtle and combined with our hedonistic adaptation very temporary. How can we experience gratitude and contentment if we are disconnected from those actual feelings within ourselves? Success, growth, happiness, worthiness, love, and kindness come from within us. When we lose interoception we lose the wonderful, uniqueness and divinity within us!
Bornemann, B., Herbert, B. M., Mehling, W. E., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1504. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01504
Farb, N., Daubenmier, J., Price, C. J., Gard, T., Kerr, C., Dunn, B. D., … Mehling, W. E. (2015). Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 763. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763
J. Füstös, K. Gramann, B.M. Herbert, O. PollatosOn the embodiment of emotion regulation: interoceptive awareness facilitates reappraisalSoc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci., 8 (8) (2013), pp. 911-917