Over the last several decades, our understanding of the connection between mind and body has evolved significantly. We have moved from a dichotomous view that regarded physical health and mental health as separate, unrelated concepts to an understanding that interoception – an awareness of the physiological processes going on in our bodies – is intertwined with our mental health and our ability to regulate our emotions.
To people new to the concept of interoception, it can seem a little strange. After all, our bodies perform a multitude of functions without us having to think about them: we breathe, our hearts beat, our circulatory systems transport oxygen and nutrients around our bodies, or digestive systems process the foods we eat. Why should we expend mental energy on bodily processes that, for most of us, happen without the need for conscious thought on our part?
In this article, we will talk about what interoception is, why it’s important, and how we can help our children develop interoceptive awareness from an early age.
What Is Interoception?
To understand what interoception is, it is helpful to look at the relationship between the body and the brain. The brain acts as a central coordinator: it receives feedback from the body and uses that feedback to maintain balance. It does this in a proactive way: instead of reacting to the things that are happening, it uses internal and external cues to predict what is going to happen next, so it can act accordingly.
For example, we become aware that our bladder is filling up, and we use this information to go to the bathroom before the bladder is completely full. On another occasion, the brain will use the memory of this sensation to prompt us to use the bathroom before long trips.
This is what interoception is: an awareness of sensations like a full bladder, an elevated heart rate, or a feeling of thirst. Other examples of interoception include feeling hot, experiencing nausea, and being tired.
Why Does Interoception Matter?
It could be said that people with high levels of interoceptive awareness are “in tune” with their bodies. By paying attention to the messages the body gives us, we can adjust our behaviour accordingly. This is important from the standpoints of both physical and emotional survival.
A Question Of Survival
Although we don’t realise it because it’s not a conscious practice, we rely on interoception to stay alive. One of the most primal examples of this is hunger. This sensation is a result of the stomach producing a hormone called ghrelin, which results in increased appetite and gastric acid production. Then, when you’ve had enough to eat, your fat cells secrete leptin, which creates the sensation of being “full”.
Without the ability to listen to those signals, we could quite literally starve to death. If we keep eating in spite of having had enough, we could become ill. By the same token, ignoring thirst signals can lead to death by dehydration; sleep deprivation can result in a host of health problems including heart issues; pain that is not associated with an obvious injury could be a sign of an illness that needs medical intervention.
Navigating The World Safely
Interoceptive awareness also helps us avoid being harmed by external threats. When you are confronted with someone who is acting in a way that indicates an intent to cause harm, your heart rate and breathing get faster, your muscles tense up, and you become hypervigilant. These are messages from your body telling you to prepare for action: what we commonly refer to as the “fight or flight” response.
We often experience this without really understanding why. Have you ever “felt” an unseen person staring at you? Or had a feeling that a situation you were in was not right, even though there were no overt signs of danger? What some people call a “gut feeling” is really a form of interoception.
Knowing How To Read The Signals
When any two entities are trying to communicate with each other, whether it is one person talking to another or your body talking to your brain, there is the potential for misunderstanding. At some point, we all face challenges when it comes to interpreting the signals being sent to us by our bodies. When we potty train a child, all we’re doing is teaching them that a full bladder means they need to use the bathroom.
Even as adults, we don’t always read the messages correctly. Consider an introvert and an extrovert going to the same party. The extrovert may experience an elevated heart rate, and subconsciously link that with excitement at the prospect of spending time with friends. The introvert, on the other hand, would be more likely to subconsciously connect it with fear, even though there’s no threat present at the party.
This ties into a concept that is gaining a lot of traction in research: that people with strong interoceptive abilities are also good at emotional regulation. Not only can they read those signals more accurately, they can manage their emotional state through deep breathing and other grounding techniques.
Teaching Kids How To Interpret Interoceptive Messages
There are things we can do to help kids develop their interoceptive awareness from an early age. These techniques can be expanded or adapted for people with autism, sensory processing challenges, anxiety, and others for whom interoception is often difficult.
An important part of developing interoception is learning about what kinds of messages we receive from our bodies. One way we can help children with this is by engaging them in various activities and then encouraging them to talk about how those activities make them feel. Are they breathing faster? Can they feel their hearts beating? Do they feel the soothing that comes from repetitive motion such as swinging or bouncing?
Examples of alerting activities include the following:
Bouncing on an exercise ball or jumping on a trampoline
Moving in time to music that has a strong beat
Going on a swing
Jumping jacks or push-ups
Skipping or running
Going down a slide
Show the child a series of pictures that depict a variety of emotions. Encourage them to talk about how each emotion makes them feel physically. For example, some people associate sadness with a sensation of heaviness on the chest. Some experience “butterflies in the stomach” when they are happy or nervous. Emotions games have the dual advantage of helping children identify emotions from facial expressions.
Not only is intentional breathing an effective way of developing interoceptive awareness, it is also a recognized grounding technique for people experiencing stress. As you slowly inhale and exhale, your heart rate slows down and you enter a state of relaxation. Breathing exercises can be a great way to help children who are having meltdowns, or who are in a state of conflict with one another.
Here are some examples of fun breathing exercises for kids – and adults!
Belly breathing: have the child place one hand on their chest and the other on their belly. Tell them to slowly inhale and pay attention to the way their ribs and belly expand. On the exhale, draw their attention to how their belly and ribs are contracting.
Dragon breaths: ask the child to close their mouth and eyes, and inhale through their nose. For the exhale, tell them to open their eyes and mouth wide, stick out their tongue, and breathe out through their mouth.
Partner breathing: sit back-to-back with your child as you both do belly breathing. See if you can feel each other’s backs expanding as you breathe.
Line breathing: draw a long line on a piece of paper. Have the child finger-trace from one end of the line to the other as they inhale, and then back the other way as they exhale.
Social stories are simple narratives that are designed to help children navigate specific scenarios, such as using the bathroom and brushing their teeth. They are a highly effective tool for many autistic children who need help learning skills or transitioning to a new phase of their lives. Depending on the child's reading comprehension and preferred way of learning, social stories can be word-based or picture-based.
Examples of scenarios suitable for social stories include:
Using the bathroom
Making a snack
Following a bedtime routine
Getting dressed to go out on a cold day
Heavy Work Activities
A component of interoception is proprioception: the sense of where your body is in space. Most of us know where we are in relation to the world around us. If you are walking up a flight of stairs, for instance, you know how far up your foot has to travel in order to get to the next step. If you’re sitting at a desk, you know without looking how your limbs are positioned. You know how to move from one room to another without colliding with objects or other people.
Heavy work activities involving large muscle groups can be used to engage the proprioceptive receptors. These activities can be anything that puts pressure on joints or muscles. Examples include the following:
Fill a box with toys and kneel in front of it. Push it from one side of the room to the other.
Tie a rope to a secure stationary object like a tree, and see how far you can lean back while holding the rope. If there are two children, let them have a good old-fashioned tug-of-war.
Roll a large exercise ball up a wall as high as you can go.
Jump on a trampoline. If there’s no trampoline available, jump on cushions placed on the floor.
Carry things: bags of groceries, a basket of laundry, a weighted stuffed animal.
Interoception And Wellness
While we are learning new things about interoception every day, it is clear that interoceptive awareness is linked with both physical and mental health. By starting to teach kids early on to listen to their bodies and respond to its cues, we can increase their chances of enjoying physical and mental health as they go through their childhood and teenage years. For more information about how the Somatofulness approach is designed to help people make the best possible use of the life energy within them, contact us today.