Interoception – 7 Ways to Self-Regulate and Limit the Impact of Negative Interoception

“Interoception” is not a new concept, it was already receiving attention over 10 years ago. However, with rising numbers of people suffering from mental health illnesses, often emotion and mood related are triggered by external factors that lead to internalising negative thoughts and feelings frequently to a point of “no control.”  Consequently, “interoception” as a concept takes the stage more noticeably in the business environment.

Defined as the “sense of the internal state of the body, whether conscious about that state or not.” “Interoception includes all signals from your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system, your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys,” as documented in an article in The Guardian, August 2021, written by David Robson, “The Hidden Sense that is Shaping Your Wellbeing”.  In the same article Robson refers to the comment by Professor Mano Tsakiris, a psychologist at the Royal Holloway, University of London who said that “There is constant communication dialogue between the brain and the viscera.”  When aware of this communication link, each one of us is better able to self-regulate. Self-regulation is quite a familiar term for most of us, as one of the main characteristics of Emotional Intelligence defined by Daniel Goleman.

The main function of the brain is to maintain balance or allostasis within all bodily systems.  It is responsible for predictive processes based on previous experience and the perception of the current experience. The former affecting how the brain responds to what is currently occurring. In other words, the brain regulates the body’s internal systems by anticipating our needs and preparing to satisfy them before they arrive. This function is central to our thinking process, emotional responses and decision making. When there is allostatic disruption, this can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders due to the perception that you can no longer control your own thoughts and feelings.

Who Rules Who?

This is not totally clear, but the current thinking and research by people such as Professor Tsakiris and Tallon-Baudry is that the brain is controlled by the body.  “We tend to think that the brain is sitting on top of the pyramid, and it’s controlling the body in general – actually, it’s probably the other way around.” The main indicators behind this are in the way our bodies are literally wired as eighty percent of the fibres in our vagus nerve ascend to the brain from various organs, especially the stomach and heart. This reflects in our understanding through phrases such as “my gut instinct says….”, “my gut response is….,” “Follow your gut.” And so on. When we fear danger, it is the gut that sends the message to the brain via these communication fibres, triggering the fight or flight reaction, resulting more often-than-not in either standing up to the threat or running away from it. 

The relationship between the heart and the brain for instance, can create enormous resistance to learning something new. Could there be a place for interoception to create a greater understanding of effective teaching methodologies in relation to adults who are unable to self-regulate?

A Blueprint for Emotional Response

Craig back in 2002 wrote that “Interception is a blueprint for an emotional response.  The body sensation underlies most of our emotional feelings, if not all, particularly the most intense feelings of hunger, pain, body temperature and the need for survival.” Emotional regulation is equal to a coherent relationship with the self and plays a big part in effective communication between mind, body and feelings and consequent behaviour, reactions and mood.

Techniques that Positively Influence Self-Regulation

We know that negative emotions lead to the fight or flight response, triggered firstly by gut instinct and then by the brain.  What actions and or techniques are useful in addressing the fight or flight response to create a sense of calm and inner control that enables logical thinking and effective decision-making, thus managing emotional responses and self-regulation more effectively?

Looking at this question from the opposite perspective.  Fear is directly linked to stress on both mind and body.  When we get stressed our ability to self-regulate is less effective.  Typically, we become less patient, are more likely to be curt in our responses, and demonstrate less tolerance for others whether colleagues, family or friends.  Suppressing emotions will at some point lead to an explosive response, often the situation having little to do with why you are stressed, and very often it is with a person who you feel safe with, usually someone close such as a family member or close colleague.

Not all stress is bad, infact a certain degree of stress is what gets us out of bed to accomplish the things we want or need to accomplish. When stress is out of balance it has negative effects on the nervous system leading to the fight or flight reaction, limiting our ability to think logically and to self-regulate, especially when internalising the emotions and losing consciousness about those emotions until such time as someone or something triggers their release.

 

7 Ways to Self-Regulate and Limit the Impact of Negative Interoception

Understanding that each one of us has the power to become emotionally aware of our feelings and thoughts and therefore implement actions and techniques to limit impact of stressful situations and our personal stressors through:

 

  1. Value and respect yourself through living and speaking your truth and in so doing to minimise “prostituting” yourself in pursuit of money, in an environment in which we are not feeling fulfilled and happy and dread the start of a new day.
  2. Create daily practice of something that diffuses built-up stress and maintains an inner balance of calm, such as breathing techniques, dance and other joyful movement, yoga or meditation. 
  3. Encourage and develop self-confidence in yourself and others through appreciation and gratitude.  Seeing and expressing the positive aspects in others, attracts the same to yourself. Remember “like attracts like”. Working for a boss and within a team and environment where you are appreciated, that is fun and creative, is the best support and stress-buster of all.
  4. Make time to play. Humour and playful activities can magic away built-up inner tension and reduce anxiety.
  5. Learn to say “No” to extra tasks when you are already feeling overwhelmed and cannot cope with anything additional.
  6. Avoid procrastination and “Eat that Frog” (Brian Tracy) everyday as one of the first three things you do.
  7. Become emotionally aware and connect to your feelings. Use all your senses of sight, hearing, feeling, touching and tasting to connect with how you feel about particular experiences, occurrences and interactions. Include the different organs in the body. Build your awareness of what each one is telling you about how it feels. Recognise those feelings and release them appropriately before they build up and result in an emotional explosion. (Refer points 4 and 6 above)

When addressing the internal state of the mind and body through supporting the adrenal axis and nervous system, negative interoception is less likely as our perception of the current experience becomes more positive, therefore does not trigger a deep negative response. All in all, the increase in personal self-awareness through regular practice that dissipates the build-up of emotions, you will be more able to take things and people in your stride through a logical, balanced assessment and approach, overall sustaining an allostatic balance within mind and body through conscious awareness and self-regulatory actions.

In Daniel Goleman’s definition of self-regulation, “Handling our emotions so that they facilitate rather than interfere with the task at hand; being conscientious and delaying gratification to pursue goals; recovering well from emotional distress.”

References:

Armstrong, K. (2019). Interoception: How We Understand Our Body’s Inner Sensations. Available: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/interoception-how-we-under.... Last accessed 8 November 2021.

Goleman, D (1999). Working with Emotional Intelligence. London : Bloomsbury Publishing . 318.

Price, C.J, Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985305/. Last accessed 8 November 2021.

Robson, D. (2021). Interoception: the hidden sense that shapes wellbeing. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/aug/15/the-hidden-sense-shaping.... Last accessed 8 November 2021.

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