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How ‘Interoceptive Awareness’ Can Help Your Body Relax

Research shows we benefit simply by having an accurate understanding of our mind, body and feelings. 

Practicing mindfulness
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Interoception” might sound like a term out of a science fiction movie, but it’s actually a psychological principle that is shown by research to help manage one’s emotions, treat addiction and provide numerous other mental health benefits.

It simply means accurate awareness of the sensations within our bodies. We can have interoceptive awareness of our heart rate and muscle tension or maybe sensations in our digestive tract and body temperature. At its core, interoception is a sensory survival mechanism, an adaptation we’ve evolved into to help us be aware of and ready to react to dangers and stresses alike.

At its best, when we are able to turn our attention inward and notice even subtle sensations in our bodies, our minds are reminded to meet our own needs. That could be reaching for a snack to soothe a growling stomach or gently stretching our arms overhead to release tension in our shoulders. 

But if we are caught in a cycle of over-reactivity to our inner sensations or are interpreting our feelings from a place of chronic anxiety, interoceptive awareness can elude us. 

Many of us struggle with interoceptive awareness in particular when chronic stress, health conditions or emotional well-being challenge us. Addictive behaviors can also interfere with interoception, as they are ways to numb or cover our actual feelings and experiences.

The good news about interoceptive awareness is that it’s demonstrably helpful. One body of research shows it to have both short-term and long-term benefits in treating substance abuse.

Other studies show therapist-guided interoceptive practices to help with emotional regulation and general well-being.

If your life stresses leave you feeling disconnected from being able to understand your own body, seeking out a therapist with expertise in interoceptive awareness could help. You can also try some interoceptive practices on your own at home to take the first steps toward noticing—accurately and without judgment—how you feel in any given moment.

body scan is one technique. Get comfortable, and starting with your feet and moving upward through your body, mentally check in with each part of yourself, noting places where you feel pain, tension or any other sensations. Be specific about what interoception experts call “body talk,” saying to yourself, “my leg muscles feel…” or “my forehead feels….”

You can also practice just one activity with mindfulness. For example, next time you eat a meal, take the time to slow down and notice the sensations you experience at each step of the process. Notice the temperature and texture of your food, the feeling of your body in your chair and your feet on the floor, the sensation of chewing and swallowing.

Take a deep breath. Notice where your breath “goes” in your body and how you feel as you inhale and exhale fully. What happens to your heart rate? To your facial muscles? Your posture? Does your breath flow smoothly or does it get “stuck” somewhere? You are only seeking accurate information, not trying to change or “fix” anything about yourself. 

How are you feeling right now?

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