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Interoception: A Key to Wellbeing
Mindful body awareness awakens you to your inner world. This sensory interior is scientifically referred to as interoception. This key to well-being invites you to pay attention to your felt sense. As you get to know the territory of your inner landscape, you will learn to trust your gut as a kind of compass that wisely guides your decisions and actions in the world. Dr. Stephen Porges, who offered us polyvagal theory, refers to interoception as the sixth sense that allows us to become aware of our instinctual responses to our environment (Porges, 2011). Your vagus nerve communicates all of your body’s sensory cues to your brain—a process that occurs without conscious awareness.
When you pay attention to your internal feedback, you not only enhance your emotional intelligence but can learn to carry this wisdom into the world in a manner that enhances your health and relationships. ~Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Interoception and Embodiment
Embodiment is best thought of as a combination of input from three sensory feedback systems: exteroception, interoception, and proprioception.
Exteroception refers to the five senses that help you process what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
Interoception involves sensory perceptions from inside your body, such as changes in temperature, tension, or pain. These sensations give you feedback about whether you are hungry, thirsty, unwell, or sleepy. Interoception also helps you recognize when you are feeling emotions.
Proprioception refers to the ability to sense your body in space as related to gravity. Proprioception relies on your vestibular system, which is housed in your inner ear and in the joints of your body. (image below depicts proprioception in challenging sports)
These three sensory feedback systems come together in awareness to form your sense of self and help you respond to your environment.
Neuroception and Interoception
We are wired to respond to cues of threat in our environment, and this occurs without conscious awareness. Porges (2004) refers to this process as neuroception which he defines as the innate ability of the nervous system to detect cues of safety, danger, and life threat. Reacting to threats can lead to a buildup of irritability, restlessness, or anxiety. Yet, we might not be aware of the cause of these feelings. Nonetheless, this undercurrent of activation can impact our ability to rest, digest, or sleep. We might find these cues in the voice tone, body language, or facial expressions of other people. At times, we might also be responding to internal bodily sensations, which can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle of increasing anxiety.
If you have experienced trauma in your history, you might have developed a highly sensitized or desensitized nervous system. If you are highly sensitive or hypervigilant, you might experience repeated false positives in which you detect a threat even where there is no risk to your safety. In contrast, if you are desensitized, you may tend to ignore indications of threat and therefore be prone to engaging with high-risk individuals, environments, or behaviors.
Interoception is the best way to increase your awareness of these neuroceptive cues.
Interoception and Wellbeing
While we may not always be aware of our unconscious responses to our environment, we can increase our ability to perceive whether we are in a defensive state of nervous system arousal by paying attention to our somatic experience. This process involves attending to interoception through embodied self-awareness.
Interoceptors are the sensory receptors located in the heart, stomach, liver, intestines, and other organs in the body. Interoceptive feedback is communicated to the brain via the vagus nerve. As we learn to pay attention to the state of the nervous system, we can better discern whether our response accurately reflects our circumstances. For example, we can use our sensory awareness of the here and now to ascertain if we are reacting fearfully in a situation that is actually safe.
Fine-tuning this discriminating awareness can take time, especially when you have a trauma history where you have had to override your gut instinct for the sake of survival. With practice, you will gain familiarity with your body’s signals and recognize the false positives and true signals of threats.
Building Embodied Self-Awareness
Drawing your senses away from the outer world can be challenging when you have a history of trauma. When you have had to attend to your environment for extended periods of time, your attentional focus can start to feel stuck in this manner. You might find it difficult to let down your guard because you fear that you will be unable to protect yourself without it. Or you might fear that your body will begin to relax, which gives you greater access to your emotions. In short, letting go of your defenses can make you feel vulnerable.
One way to build your capacity for interception is by cultivating dual awareness. Dual awareness involves noticing environmental cues that let you know you are safe now while simultaneously paying attention to uncomfortable sensations or emotions for brief periods of time. For example, you might look around your healing space and focus your eyes on external cues of safety, such as the sky outside your window, until you feel calm and at ease. Then you might begin to orient your attention to your body. It can help to start by noticing the feeling in your fingers and toes or the movement of air through your nose as you breathe.
As you continue, you might feel more capable of paying attention to your internal sensations, such as your body's temperature or the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your belly. If, at any point, an emotion or sensation feels overly distressing, you can return your attention to your external cues of safety. Eventually, you might feel comfortable paying attention to patterns of physical tension or the weight of any emotional burdens you carry. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself.
How to Practice Interoception
This recorded practice invites you to explore your own interoceptive awareness by exploring a seated mindfulness practice with your eyes open and then with your eyes closed. Often, when our awareness is hypervigilant to the world, we begin to feel fatigued. It depletes your resources. The antidote is to nourish your body and mind by turning the lens of your attention inside. You can think of this process as directing your life-force energy toward yourself. Ideally, this provides a respite from the outer world and is a way to nourish yourself with self-awareness.
To begin, take some time to orient yourself to the safety of your current surroundings. Find a comfortable seat and notice your body sensations, breath, and any emotions present for you in this moment. With your eyes open, see if you can find a visual cue that helps you feel supported and safe. Notice your sensations, emotions, thoughts, and level of energy. This will serve as a baseline and will allow you to notice subtle changes in how you feel throughout the practice.
If you would like, explore closing your eyes and noticing your internal sensations. If this feels too vulnerable at any point, you can simply reopen your eyes and return your attention to your external visual cue of safety. Notice if you prefer to keep your eyes open or closed. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to respond to any mindfulness practice. You are welcome to go back and forth between taking your attention to your internal sensations and external sensory awareness.
Begin to notice whether it feels easy or difficult for you to sit still. Are you moving more or less than usual? Do you feel lethargic or sluggish? Do you feel collapsed or slumped? Do you feel frozen or excessively still? Do you feel relaxed and at ease?
Notice how much space you want to take up right now. Do you feel expansive, or do you feel the urge to curl up and make yourself small?
Begin to notice how you are breathing. Do you notice a tendency to hold your breath? Are you breathing in a shallow manner? Does your breath feel quickened, or do you notice a shortness of breath, like you cannot get enough oxygen? Are you breathing freely and easily?
Do you notice your heartbeat? Does this feel rapid or accelerated? Are you sweating more than usual? Notice the overall quality of your energy. Do you feel vigilant and on high alert? Do you feel foggy or fatigued? Do you feel relaxed and at ease?
Now, gather a general sense of your body. See if you can welcome yourself just as you are in this moment. Are you aware of any internal sensations that give you feedback about how you are feeling right now? Slowly direct your awareness to the sensations in your face … neck … arms … hands … chest … back … belly … pelvis … legs … and feet.
As you take in the feedback from your body sensations, do you sense anything you might need right now to enhance your experience of connection to yourself and safety in your environment? Perhaps take some time to reflect upon any changes you might need to make to best support your body and mind.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Arielle Schwartz.com
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, a trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested relational psychotherapy.