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The Science Behind: ‘Listen to your body’

Interoception has a greater impact on everyday functioning than many of us realise.

When you are working under pressure – which let’s face it, is most days –  listening to your body might be the last thing on your mind.  You may, however, want to bump it up your priority list given the latest  research into interoceptive awareness, the technical term for listening to your body.

Interoception refers to our ability to perceive internal bodily sensations, such as our breathing, heart rate, hunger, pain or muscle tension.  It has several dimensions.  One is the tendency to be focused on internal bodily signals.  Another is how accurately we perceive what’s happening in our bodies.

You might think that we all have a good idea about what’s happening inside our own skins, but research shows that some of us have a higher interoceptive accuracy (IA) than others.

Does this superior sense-ability confer any real life advantages?

A higher IA is related to better decision making, as well as better regulation of our emotions, food and weight, whereas a low IA is related to lower resilience and certain mental health conditions such as depression, according to Dr. André Schulz, from the Self-Regulation and Health Research Group, University of Luxembourg, who has been researching interoception for 15 years.

Some of these links are easy to understand.  If you are good at accurately detecting the physical signs of hunger or fullness, this will help you eat the right amount of food for your body and thereby help you maintain a heathy weight.

But how might interoception influence emotional regulation or decision making?

There are technical explanations for this, but here’s an easy way to understand the links. The first skill of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize what you are feeling.  All emotions are accompanied by a sensation in the body, so the better you are at noticing your elevated heart rate, or butterflies in your stomach, for example, the better your emotional awareness.

What about decision making?  Imagine saying ‘yes’ to something when you really needed to say ‘no’.  How would you register this discrepancy? You’d feel it in your body as some stress-related symptom, letting you know you are out of alignment. If you listened to this and acted on it, you might make a more congruent decision.

A higher IA isn’t always better though, it’s associated with panic disorders for example.

“We don’t know if interoception plays a causative role in these conditions as most of the studies have been correlational in nature,” says Schulz, “but it’s possible that there is an ideal range of IA, and if one’s IA is outside the normal range, then that’s a risk factor for developing certain disorders.”

Professionals who work in high pressure environments are up against some tough barriers to interoception.  One can be a work culture that regards employees as being weak, rather than smart, for paying attention to early warning signs.

Stress itself can interfere with interoception.  “When we are in a stressful situation our attention is typically shifted towards the challenging stimulus and, therefore, away from the body,” explains Schulz.  “That is not problematic in an acute stress situation, but may cause trouble if chronic stress disrupts body awareness over time.” (Here’s a reference list if you want to dig more into this topic.)

                                                                 

Are there times when we shouldn’t trust or act on our body signals?

 Things can get a little complex in some situations and pain is one of them.

Acute pain, that immediate sensation you feel when your appendix bursts or you burn your hand on the stove is there for our survival and we should definitely listen to it.  “It stops us from being silly and prompts us to take care of ourselves,” says Tasha Stanton, Associate Professor in Clinical Pain Neuroscience at the University of South Australia.   Take your hand away from the heat, now, or get to a hospital for help.

Chronic pain, loosely defined as pain that lasts beyond about three months, which is the time expected for healing following surgery or injury, is a different beast.   Stanton explains: With chronic pain, the pain system becomes over-protective, meaning you feel pain before your tissues are in danger of injury.  This means that you don’t necessarily need to stop exercising, for example, when you feel uncomfortable sensations. It’s not so much about ignoring your body, but  reframing the sensations as “I’m sore but safe”.

“It’s really important to keep pain in perspective in order to keep people moving as physical activity, along with education, is the best treatment for chronic pain,” says Stanton.

                                                                 

If you know you are low in body awareness and could benefit from getting more in touch with your body, the good news is that you can improve your IA.

“Exercise is one of the best ways to increase interoception,” says Schulz.  “It helps us tune into our bodies, while regulating any negative sensations and feelings.”

Body-based mindfulness techniques also help.  They not only focus our attention on body sensations, but they have the added advantage of training us to accept whatever we notice in our bodies, without judgement.  Schulz gives an example. “If you hope to be calm at night after a stressful working day, but notice that your heart is beating quite fast, this discrepancy may cause anxiety if you don’t practice non-judgmental observation, which will only further amplify your heart rate.”

In our constant search for wellbeing and balance it’s easy to miss the resources that are right in front of us, such as the wisdom of the body . Interoception, which allows us to tap into this intelligence on matters ranging from food, feelings and decisions, deserves a place in our work-life toolkit.

TIPS FOR BUILDING YOUR INTEROCEPTION

  • Develop the habit a doing a simple body scan a few times a day. Make a note-to-self about what you notice.
  • Try not to ignore, minimise or judge any sensations in your body. Regard it all as valuable information.
  • Attend a class or use a guided app that uses a body-based approach to mindfulness.
  • Factor in regular enjoyable physical activity.
  • Integrate daily de-stressing rituals into your schedule. (Remember, stress interferes with interoception.)
  • If paying more attention to body sensations triggers emotional distress or past trauma, seek help from a qualified professional.
  • Consider coaching to build your body intelligence.

Originally published in the Law Society Journal, Oct 2019