What is Interoception?
Interoception is the ability to become aware of sensations from inside the body such as physical sensations related to internal organ function like the heartbeat, respiration, satiety, or the autonomic nervous system. Thus, interoception is the process of sensing bodily signals a process that is significant in physiological functioning. In most cases, the sensations remain unconscious, and when the body becomes aware it becomes conscious.
Interoception is an important concept that has become a topic of interest in research due to its impact on physical health, mental health, and emotional functioning.
The Interoceptive system
The Interoceptive system has special nerve receptors, which send information to the brain, located throughout the body including the internal organs, bones, muscles, and skin. It is the brain that interprets the information to let us know how we feel.
The Interoceptive system promotes the self-regulating process that helps organisms maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for their survival, a process referred to as homeostasis. This means the body can respond to the input and respond accordingly to a state of balance. For example, when a person feels cold, they can put on warm clothes or when a person feels thirsty they can drink water to restore balance.
The Link between the Interoceptive system and Emotions
Emotional regulation involves a well-reasoned relationship with the self particularly an effective link between the body, mind, and feelings. The Interoceptive system helps us to control our emotions. The science of emotions tends to shift and travel along with either body-oriented or mind-oriented explanations. One explanation is that bodily cues and sensations are the main source and explanation for emotional experience while the other is the cognitive processes. For example, when a person feels anxious he/she feels like there are butterflies in the stomach. Or, when you find graffiti put on your front fence, you will get angry.
These are just examples of how interoception is linked to the emotional system. Studies indicate that the ability to read our physical signs is directly related to how well our bodies can identify and self-regulate their emotional states.
Interoception and Emotional Regulation
We tend to regulate our emotions in a certain way either by denial, intensifying, or completely altering them. Nevertheless, effective control depends on the capacity to modulate emotional responses through cognitive strategies. Individuals differ on how they regulate their emotions which can have an impact on their well-being and social functioning.
For example, reappraisal; is how one re-interprets the meaning of a negative situation to prevent it from feeling negative. Reappraisal is an effective strategy as it pertains to favourable emotional regulations in everyday life.
Regulation of emotions is related to both attention and awareness of the emotional state, a process that can be linked to one’s awareness of a person’s bodily state. Thus the close relationship between interoception (bodily signs), emotional, and cognitive processes. The perceptions of the bodily changes can be fundamental for mediating the emotional experience.
The awareness of emotional feelings largely depends on the neural representation of bodily cognitions where the somatic makers evoke feeling states that influence cognition and behavior. Therefore, the bodily states as well as their representations shape emotions, cognition, and behavior. In that case, higher Interoception awareness is associated with more intense feelings and higher activation of underlying brain structures during emotional stimulation.
Also, interoception awareness is linked to cognitive functions such as decision-making, selective attention, or self-regulation during physical exercises.
Interoception and Social Connection
Interoception enables us to sense the internal physiological states of the body, for example, thirst, temperature, micturition, or hunger. Due to this, the body can self-regulate and maintain homeostatic conditions. The process involves a bottom-up central processing, afferent signals from the body along with top-down regulatory directives. The physiological signals can/cannot be represented as subjective feelings which may then lead to behaviour change.
Interoception is quite different from exteroceptive, senses that involve vision and audition and is also different from proprioception which involves the sensing of muscles/joints position. However, the process is interconnected through multimodal sensory integration.
How does interoception connect with social situations? When a person is anxious, the bodily response might entail an increase in heart rate, a response that serves to enhance alertness where the person can prepare to argue out his/her case or simply walk away. The physiological changes may be felt and can lead to affect generation. Studies indicate that the Interoceptive ability (IAcc) trait is responsible for the social reactivity. Hence, people with higher IAcc have less negative affect after a challenging social situation, such as an impromptu public speaking or social exclusion in a conversation, despite their physiological reactivity as compared to participants with lower IAcc. Results show that it is not the physiological response that causes social stress but one’s a subjective appraisal of it. Therefore, greater IAcc enables a person to identify the physiological response due to an objective and external social situation rather than an attribute of oneself. Higher IAcc is associated with less negative affect including behavioral affiliation tendency measured by preferred interpersonal distance.
Disorders in the Interoceptive system
Interoception helps the body to maintain a state of homeostasis, in addition, the system forms the basis for the physical and emotional regulation affecting self-regulation, social thinking, flexible thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, and the development of social skills. However, a person can have difficulties in modulating sensory input in the Interoceptive system where he/she can be over-responsive to Interoceptive inputs, for instance, having a heightened reaction to pain or an individual can be under-responsive for example not feeling pain until it is in an intense level.
Furthermore, there can be sensory discriminative problems in the system where a person cannot identify the meanings of the signals, for instance, a person cannot be sure whether he/she is hungry or need to go to the bathroom. The confusion can lead to anxiousness or overwhelming emotions leading to the negative impact such as aggressiveness or inappropriate laughter.
How to Improve Interoception
Incorporating the following activities into our everyday life have proven to be beneficial in improving interoception
- Doing Yoga, Yoga provides good proprioceptive and vestibular input. It helps a person to examine and focus on how the body and mind are feeling
- Alertness; an individual can focus on the body and emotional state
- Breathing exercises help to calm a person
- Heavy work activities such as weight lifting and swimming that involve large muscles can lead to body awareness
Interoception helps to regulate the vital functions of the body. Thus it is a process important for our survival, emotions, decisions, as well as well-being, therefore, the need for increasing our bodily/interoception awareness and a professional therapist can be of significant help.