Interoception: A little known sensory system that can greatly impact your mood
Most of us have probably noticed how different our mind and body feels after we go for a walk or after eating, or taking care of other physical needs. Oftentimes we forget that the mind and body are very much intertwined and connected. Something as simple as how you slept the night before, how much movement you have experienced throughout the day, or how you eat, can affect your mood.
This is a normal part of life, and it is absolutely expected to have ups and downs in mood, depending on the day and how our environment has impacted us. We may feel frustrated or disconnected, though, when we are not taking time to reflect on what has impacted our mood. When we don’t understand the causes of this, we may lash out towards others, or we may distance ourselves from others in order to maintain the peace.
Becoming more aware of your mind and body, and how it is linked, is not about trying to create a perfect day every day. It is about being able to reflect internally and understand the many sensory experiences and environmental experiences that have affected how you feel on any given day. When we are able to verbalize, acknowledge and identify this, we are better able to also be present for our loved ones, and better able to regulate.
So, what is interoception?
Interoception, at its essence, is our ability to feel and perceive what is happening in our body. We all have receptors within our body that can help signal to our brain that we are thirsty, hungry, hot or cold, etc. When our sensory processing is functioning optimally, we are quick to pick up on these cues. You may not even think about it, and you may intuitively know what your body needs.
When our sensory processing is not functioning optimally, due to various reasons, our brain may have trouble picking up on the signal the body is providing. This can lead to behaviors that greatly influence our mood, such as under or over eating, feeling anxious or fearful due to an elevated heart rate, or feeling uncomfortable and frustrated without knowing why.
When working with therapists, you can “train your brain” to start picking up on and recognizing the missed cues. Although your body and nervous system is still unique to you, you can regulate better when you are aware of what your body needs.
As a basic example, someone who misses hunger cues may go on for too long without eating, later becoming shaky and irritable and maybe not understanding why they are in a “bad mood”. This can easily turn into a problem for loved ones who may not understand why they are feeling irritable.
Why is it important to identify our bodily cues?
When our brain misses or misinterprets signals, we miss opportunities to keep our body well-maintained throughout the day. Without proper breaks or moments to take care of our needs, it is like driving a car without proper maintenance.
When we miss these opportunities to meet needs, we may end the day exhausted, worn out, or irritable and overwhelmed. We may internalize these sensations and think there is something wrong with us, or that we are being difficult or irritable for no good reason.
If a child feels this way, the parents may wonder what is happening or why the child is having trouble managing their feelings.
If you are married and have missed cues for physical needs throughout the day, you may return home with a desire to “zone out” rather than connect, and you can see how this creates an unhealthy pattern in a marriage.
If you are a parent who is overwhelmed and overstimulated, you are more likely to react negatively when you have littles ones who need your full attention at all times.
Not all conflicts and problems in life are due to missed interoceptive cues, but a vast amount of problems can be prevented if we are more adept at learning about our own bodies and what our bodies need.
It is much easier to acknowledge, for example, that you are overheated and need to cool down, rather than lash out in frustration at others because you are not aware that you are overheated.
Therapy is not just about talking about your problems, as the media may have you believe. Therapy is also “troubleshooting” the mind and body and providing tools for better identification of physical and mental feelings, better self-awareness, and better emotional regulation. Just like a car, we all need some maintenance. Therapy can help you identify what needs to be maintained.