Make Interoception Your Superpower
What’s interoception and how can it be a superpower?
“’Interoception’ is the technical term used for our ability to perceive signals and sensations from our body – hunger, pain, hot, cold, itchy, painful, beating heart and so on” (Bedford, 2020: 8).
Put simply, it’s a sensory system. The first five senses are pretty well known: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. These senses are what we call ‘exteroceptors’ and they connect the environment outside the body to the brain. Interoceptors connect the environment inside the body to the brain. They include things like balance (vestibular sense) and proprioception (internal senses like feeling butterflies in your stomach), and spatial orientation (ability to find your body in space – helpful for walking around without looking at your feet!).
“Interoceptors gather information from inside the body” (Rothschild, 2017: 55). They are a direct link to the emotions in the body and involved in emotional literacy.
What is emotional literacy?
Think of emotional literacy as emotional intelligence and body intelligence. Learning to notice and describe what is going on inside our bodies, i.e., interoception, is the first step to learning how to describe how we are feeling, which is necessary for taking care of ourselves and for developing regulation – that ability to become settled when stressed, distressed or anxious. Often in our busy lives we are completely unaware that throughout the day we have accumulated stress and tension, until we get home and notice a lot of tightness in our neck and shoulders or a headache. Imagine if you could pick up on the signals earlier and do something to stave off that headache. Imagine if you could help your kids develop this type of self-awareness and self-care.
Do we all have interoception?
Interception is a sense we all have but it can develop differently for different people. It is affected by things like life experiences (whether or not you’ve learnt to pay attention to or ignore different types of feelings) and family and cultural influences (family attitudes to health, emotions and wellbeing; cultural values around emotions and self-care). We all have different levels of sensitivity and accuracy in terms of our interception, but it is absolutely something we can develop. Learning to pay attention to, and ‘read’, our bodies is one way to do this.
How is interoception a superpower?
Building connection between your mind and body supports self-care, and a well-cared for body is more likely to fire on all cylinders. When you are able to notice your body doesn’t feel well, you are able to give yourself some extra attention and support. Your body has a story to tell and learning to read that story can help you look after your body, including your brain.
Interception gives you a window into your emotional state. While it is primarily about physical awareness, it also links to general emotional self-awareness. Being able to ‘feel your feelings’ is helpful both personally and professionally. Noticing our feelings gives us the chance to take care of ourselves, to be present in our lives and relationships, and to take a minute to regulate before saying or doing something that might harm an important relationship with a loved one or colleague.
You might even find that you start paying attention to your gut feelings and intuition.
“Our intuition helps us ‘sense’ the truth of things, turning into energy what our conscious thoughts may not be aware of” (Swart, 2020: 151).
Did you know that neurobiological research has revealed a complex communication system between the millions of neurons in our gut walls and our limbic brains that is integral for decision making? No wonder it’s become popular to talk about the gut as a second brain.
So how do we learn to read our bodies? Interoception can be a tricky concept to grasp unless you are already connected to your body through things like yoga or sports that require biofeedback from your body. This is because the more grounded and present you are, the stronger your interceptive sense will be and some physical activities like yoga definitely help to be grounded. But rest assured, interoception is absolutely something you can develop, or strengthen if you are already feeling connected to your body. We all have the capacity to know our bodies and communicate with our brains to look after ourselves and make better choices in life, love, work, and relationships.
One way to develop interception is to practice the body scan for body awareness. For a brief version check out my “Firing on all Cylinders” blog
And for a more detailed version, read on.
Body Scan for Body Awareness
The purpose of this activity is to practice noticing your body with gentle curiosity, and by noticing build your awareness and strengthen your connection to your body. This activity can also help release tension you may be holding.
Often, we are caught up in the demands of life, in being busy, and lose connection to our bodies. When feeling busy, pressured, or stressed we can forget to check in with our body and so be unaware of where we are holding tension, and what our body, brain, mind, and heart need. This might be about releasing tension or noticing areas for self-care.
Prepare by siting comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Make sure you don’t have any constriction. Loosen any tight clothing.
If your mind wanders at any time, if you get distracted with different thoughts or emotions that’s okay. Simply accept the thought or distraction, and then gently and acceptingly bring your attention back to doing the exercise.
To begin the body scan for body awareness, close your eyes or soften your gaze.
Become aware of your lower body. Begin with your feet. Feel your feet making contact with the floor.
Pay attention to the physical feelings in your feet starting with your toes, then up through the soles of your feet to your ankles. Notice any feelings of discomfort, tension, pain, coolness or warmth, tightness, rested or tired… Just notice these sensations. Don’t judge them as good or bad, just notice and be aware. Where you feel tension, breathe in and as you exhale slowly relax that part of your body, and release some of the tension.
Next, allow your attention to drift up above your feet to your lower legs. Again, start by simply being aware of any physical sensations you might experience there. Does this part feel energized? Heavy? Is there any pain, tightness, or discomfort? Slowly move your attention to your knees. How do your knees feel? Keep moving upwards and notice how your thighs feel. Any tightness or tension. Feel the sensation of the back of your thighs touching the chair you are sitting on. Move your attention to your pelvic region and buttocks and notice the feeling of sitting in the chair – of how your body makes contact with the chair. Where you feel tension, just breathe and as you exhale slowly relax that part of your body and release some tension.
Become aware of your upper body. Slowly bring your awareness further up your body. Start with your torso. Feel your stomach – does it feel calm, nervous, settled, hungry… Notice any sensation no matter how small. Now move your attention to your lower back. Feel how your lower back touches the chair you are sitting on and notice how your back feels. Are you holding tension in your back? Does it hurt? Is it relaxed? If you feel any tension or negative sensation just breathe in and breath out, slowly relax that part of your body and release some of the tension.
Moving upwards bring your attention to the front and back of your chest. Notice how your upper back makes contact with your chair. Feel how your whole back supports your body on the chair. Pay attention to any sensations you can feel. Now bring your awareness to your hands – start with your fingertips, through the fingers and the palm of your hands. Notice any sensations that you feel. Are your hands resting on your legs or the chair? Feel the contact between your hands and arms and the chair or your lap. Now move your attention up towards your forearms, moving through your elbows and to the upper parts of your arms. If you notice any tension, simply breathe in and breathe out. If you feel any tension or negative sensation just breathe in and breath out, slowly relax that part of your body and release some of the tension.
Moving on from your arms become aware of your shoulders and neck. These are parts of the body that often become tense as a result of stress. Become aware of your shoulders and the muscles of your neck. How does this area feel? Do you have tightness or tensions? Is your neck sore? Notice any tensions, breathe in, and breathe out, slowly releasing the tension.
Become aware of your head. Be aware of your chin, your mouth, your nose, cheeks, eyes, and ears. Do you have any physical sensations or any type of tension? Be aware of how your head feels. Does it feel relaxed or energised? Do you have tightness, tension, or a headache? If you notice any tension breathe in and breathe out, and slowly release the tension.
Take a moment to just breathe in and breathe out and feel the connection to your body.
Then gently open your eyes. You are now finished the body scan.
After completing the body scan make a note of any sources of tension or discomfort and consider what you can do about this. Does your body need some self-care? Hydration? Sleep? Exercise? Play? Connection with others?
You can practice this exercise regularly to develop your awareness and body connection. This will help you to notice what is happening in your body and coach your body to relax. And use this exercise anytime you notice feeling stressed or pressure to connect and release the tension.
And the added bonus? Practicing will help you make interception your superpower.
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
References: Bedford, K. (2018). Body Signals. St Lukes Innovative Resources.
Rothschild, B. (2017). The Body Remembers 2: Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment. WW Norton and Company: New York.
Swart, t. (2020). The Source: Open Your Mind. Change Your Life. Penguin Random House: London.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice. Please seek help from a professional if you require support.