Interoception: The Hidden Sense
Do you know all EIGHT of your senses? Of course we know sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Even my 3 year old can list those. Then we have vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (movement) and interoceptive (internal). All of these senses help us to understand how our bodies interact with space around us. We've recently gotten curious about that eighth sense and how we relate to and understand the internal world.
Interoception helps you get to know what's going on inside your body. It allows you to sense things such as hunger, thirst, heartbeat, blood circulation, breath, nausea, body temperature and sleepiness. Transmitters on all of our organs send signals to the brain constantly. Most of us have not trained our brains to identify many of these signals. I have no idea what my liver is telling my brain! Though, a hunger pang, sure I know what that feels like. It takes time and curiosity to delve deep into your interoceptive sensory system.
When we're able to identify and understand the subtle changes happening in our body, we can then have better control over our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Practicing mindfulness can help you learn HOW to interpret the sensations you're feeling in your body.
Have you ever had a feeling of unease, discomfort or pain and not know why it's happening? Sometimes I start to get cranky around 2pm for what seems like no reason at all. I start to scan my mind to figure out why, perhaps another person has annoyed me, or the weather isn't to my liking. After some time and contemplation, it turns out I was just hungry and and snack was all I needed to boost my energy levels and mood. I find myself looking outside myself as a first course of action, when what I really needed was to turn inward. It's usually the simplest things that get overlooked. Hunger, duh!
I see this clearly in my kids. I have three boys ages 5 years and under. When they're especially whiney or cranky it's usually one of two things. Hunger or sleep. They are not in-tune enough with their interoception to identify the cause of their discomfort. Brain maturity and practice will bring that along in due time. So, for now, it's my job to help guide them to getting them what they need. Sometimes this involves them protesting against a nap or bedtime. Sometimes, even as adults, the thing we need the most is the thing that we resist. I can't tell you how many times I've stayed up later than I should for no apparent reason at all.
When I have a problem I can 't figure out right away I first turn to observation. Observing the situation without judging it helps me start to see clearly what's actually going on. For example, say I've been staying up late several nights in a row scrolling my phone mindlessly. Instead of judging myself for it, telling myself I'm dumb for doing something I know is against good sleep protocol, sending myself into a shame/tiredness spiral, I'll pause. I'll take myself out of the situation and try to observe it for what it is. Hmm, isn't it interesting that I'm resisting my own bedtime. I'll be gentle with myself during the day and acknowledge that I'm tired without beating myself up for it. I'll make a conscious effort to put my phone away earlier the next night and try to get more sleep.
Observation helps us take in more information about the situation. Once we see clearly, then we can act. Being able to tap into our interoceptive sense allows us to assess what's going on internally. Are we tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Cold? Sick? Only after we are able to correctly identify the problem can we address it with action. If you're misdiagnosing your crankiness as hunger, but you're really just tired, no amount of snacks will help you feel better. Mindfulness practices help us see clearly what's going on inside and around us so that we can make better education decisions on how to live our lives.
Last week, we talked about how a body scan can help you become happier and healthier. Typically, in a body scan we observe our physical bodies and relax the areas that feel tight or sore. We can use a body scan to go even deeper into our bodies, peeling back the layers and seeing what we uncover along the way. Follow along with me as I guide you through an interoceptive body scan. We tap into the heart beat and see what else we can detect on a deeper level.
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Nicole Elipas Doherty
Co-Founder + CEO