Interoception: Body Awareness Improves Emotion Regulation

To optimize health and well-being we all are essentially charged with being the first responder to our mind, body, and environment. Our basic five senses—smell, touch, hear, taste, sight—send signals to our brain, combined they offer an exemplary sensory detection system.  Spatial awareness and balance are the sixth and seventh sense, and some may add an eighth sense that is referred to as interoception.  Experts refer to interoception as the hidden sense, it is lesser known and helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of our body.  Examples of interoception include sensations of hunger, hydration needs, defecation or urination cues, physiological stress responses such as accelerated heart rate, breath depth and frequency, and increases in adrenaline. In order to best care for ourselves, we can tap into the deluge of information that is communicated from our peripheral nervous system to our central nervous system, directing our actions and responses to our benefit.  

Becoming adept at detecting signals from the body, especially during stressful moments, exposes us to sensory cues that then allows us to be an early responder. Emotion regulation in part is dependent on effective communication between the body, mind, and feelings. Research suggests that our ability to perceive our own bodily signals is associated with our capacity to self-regulate, especially under duress. When a person becomes anxious, their heart rate increases, depth and rate of breathing changes, and muscle contractions increase that can lead to trembling. People with a heightened interoceptive ability are more likely to detect physical sensations early on and activate emotion regulation skills. The interoceptive person may pause and reframe their understanding of the stressor, take slow deep breaths, and counter the muscular tension with muscular release. Additionally, the data suggest that people who are more connected to their own physical and emotional state, are more able to read the emotional and physical state of others.

The important question then becomes, how can we increase our interoception abilities to allow for improved responses to the ever-growing challenges of our stressful world? Mindfulness meditation may be considered a training zone for the practice of linking bodily sensations to awareness; these linkage pathways practiced during calm can become well worn, familiar, and useful in emotion regulation. During mindfulness meditation, attention is often directed to different body segments and their sensations; for example, to the relaxation of the back and neck muscles where tension often sits, or to softening the facial muscles—perpetually active throughout our days. Imagine the practice of breath awareness—literally sitting quietly, eyes closed, undisturbed and directing all of your attention to the movement and sensations associated with breathing—as an implement in emotion regulation in a stressful moment. Whether you are in the middle of a heated discussion, stuck in traffic, or waiting for a response to a difficult question, your body has the ability to reduce the intensity of the moment through focused, slow, deep breaths.

We can also become more familiar with our body’s responses when moving and exercising and this will likewise improve our interoceptive abilities.  We can turn up the volume on bodily sensations during movement as a method of learning to notice our sensations—heart rate, sweat rate, breathing rate— essentially creating those awareness pathways that then can be applied to how we feel when the sensations are more subtle at rest or facing an emotional stressor. Yoga provides a modality that offers increased physical movement, breath awareness, and mindfulness meditation—all of which can serve to improve our interoception abilities, in turn positively impacting our emotion regulation.

Children can be taught to tune into their body to increase awareness and emotion regulation. There are dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide among our youth, interoception enhancing activities can be included as part of formal health and physical education for all. When we know better, we do better—we know that connecting our mind, body and emotions can improve our health and well-being; therefore, it is time to do it!