The Interoception System – Listen to Your Body

Listen to your body. We hear this phrase often, especially when we are tired or stressed, as a signal to take it easy. More recently, I’ve been using it during potty training (a whole other post…) to help my son identify when it’s time to start heading to the bathroom. In fact, “listening to ourselves” is an entire system dedicated to letting us know what our bodies genuinely need, from sustenance to sleep, to maintain optimal operations.

What is Interoception?

You know the first line in Lose Yourself: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…”? 

Better yet, you know those Snickers commercials that pretty much bank on being Hangry?

Yeah, that’s all interoception.

The Interoceptive system is responsible for letting us know how we feel internally. It regulates functions like hunger, thirst, digestion, body temperature, sleep, mood, heart rate, and arousal state. The system runs passively, only making itself known when the body requires something. Our organs send up signals to the brain informing their status through various bodily sensations, such as a growling tummy, a dry mouth, goosebumps on the skin, or a pounding in the chest. With this intel, our brain can put meaning to these indicators and address them. If our stomach growls, we eat. Droopy eyes? We sleep. Bladder is full? You get the idea.

Interoception also lays the groundwork for self-regulation, emotions, and individual perception of our environment. These sensations and consequent reactions are unique from person to person.

For example, if we were strolling through a haunted house, you could have a racing heartbeat, tightness in the chest, and sweaty palms. These may be identified as anticipation and excitement for one person but absolute terror and dread for another, resulting in different methods of dealing with the situation (continue to walk through the house or run away looking for the closest exit).

Identifying these sensations allow us to understand our emotions. Research has found that the ability to detect our own physical signals directly corresponds to how well we can determine and regulate our emotional states and, in turn, how well we can accurately read someone else’s physical and emotional cues.

The Interoception system also has roles in:

  • Self-awareness
  • Flexible thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Intuitive social skills
  • Overall health and well-being

What Happens If This System is Malfunctioning?

When this system is working at its optimal, it’s like a well-oiled machine. It provides an update on the current conditions of your body, you identify them, you self-regulate, and all is well.

However, if the system is having difficulties providing accurate data, we cannot respond appropriately to what our bodies are telling us. We would have issues understanding our emotions since we would not recognize our physical symptoms. We might also struggle with social interactions as we could not regulate how we feel or pick up on someone else’s emotional cues. This can result in physical aggression, emotional shut down, inappropriate laughing or smiling in various situations. It’s like when we lash out at a poor, innocent soul because we didn’t realize that we were hungry, or when we snap at our kids or spouse because we are exhausted from the day and pushed ourselves to the limit.

Here are some common types of interoception difficulty:

The Over-Responsive: Over-responsive kids are hypersensitive to their bodily sensations. They may eat more than others to avoid feeling hunger pangs or frequently use the bathroom because they don’t like the feeling of a full bladder. They may misinterpret itch and other tactile sensations as painful. They might also feel pain more acutely or for longer periods of time.

The Under-Responsive: On the flip side, under-responsive kids may not feel or respond to sensations when they should. They might need longer to potty train, having frequent accidents. They may not eat or drink often because they don’t feel hunger or thirst. They may be unaware of pain unless it is extremely intense. The under-responsive may also crave interoceptive input, or at least like the feel of it. They may move quickly because panting feels good to them. They might not like to eat or drink because they feel comfortable with the sensations of hunger and thirst.

Discrimination Difficulties: Children with discrimination difficulties have trouble deciphering interoceptive information. They may be aware of their internal sensations, but not able to identify where they originated from and what they represent. They may feel their tummy gurgling, but they won’t know if they need to use the bathroom, if they are hungry, or if they are ill.

How Can We Help?

Currently, research shows that this system can be improved by working with an Occupational Therapist who is trained in sensory processing and integration. They can develop and implement customized mindful strategies, similar to a sensory diet, to address the over- or under-responsiveness to their internal input. The focus would be to increase the child’s ability to acknowledge and attend to these signals in a specific way.

For example, for children who didn’t recognize how high their arousal level was (the sensory seekers who bounced off walls), I would have them do a quick 7-minute workout. Once they were done, we would discuss the sensations they were feeling (sweat, heavy breathing, elevated heart rate) and then asked how they felt (tired, exhausted, accomplished, gross). The goal is to improve their interoceptive awareness by having them identify these sensations, give them meaning, and eventually build from this process.

If you think your child’s interoceptive system is giving them difficulties, there are definitely some things you can do at home as well. Find mindful activities that bring awareness to your child’s body and its functions, primarily focusing on creating and noticing an internal change in muscles, breathing, temperature, pulse, or touch.

Stretch it out – Stretches can bring awareness to our muscles. Muscle tension is a common indicator of stress, poor posture, or overexertion; all things your kid should be able to identify on their own. Have your child hold a stretch for about 30 seconds and then relax. Ask them where they felt the stretch.

Tighten up – Another way to teach about muscle tension is by having your child lie on the floor and tighten their entire body like they were a wood board (Light as a feather, stiff as board). Have them hold that position for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, let them release it and relax their body so they feel like Jello. This is also related to clenching, or progressive tightening and relaxing, for adult anxiety relief.

Do you have a pulse? – This can help your child find the connection between heart rate and arousal level. Have your child check their pulse and count the number of beats they feel for 1 minute. They can find it on their wrist (radial) or on their neck (carotid).  Now, have them run around and get their energy out. Once done, have them check their pulse again. Talk to them about the number difference.

YogaAlways a favorite! The practice itself focuses on breath work which can help your child understand the different kinds of breathing and how to control it. In addition, it reduces stress and improves body awareness and emotional well-being. Box breathing, Ujjayi breath, Darth Vader voice; all bring the body into focus.

How Hungry Am I? – This is a good activity to discuss the concept of hunger, especially for children who cannot tell if they are hungry, satiated, or full. This helps kids think about how their bodies notify them when it needs food. For more information, read it here: https://healthpoweredkids.org/lessons/how-hungry-am-i/

“Listening to your body” is a habit that kids should learn and prioritize, from their young years to school-age to teen years. The human body develops so much and so fast during these times. As a parent, make sure you are checking in with your kids daily and help them build the vocabulary to talk about their bodies.


Sources:
Interoception and Sensory Processing Issues: What You Need to Know“, Amanda Morin. Understood.
What is Interoception?“, Kelly Mahler. KellyMahler.com.
Interoception: How We Understand Our Body’s Inner Sensations“, Kim Armstrong. Association for Psychological Science, September 25, 2019.
Interoception“, South Australian Department of Education.
“Interoception: The “Hidden Sense”. STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, July 2017.
Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder.  New York, NY: A Perigee Book.

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