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Interoceptive Awareness: Balance the Mind and Body

November 30, 2022

Picture this. You’re about to go into an important meeting at work. You feel your heart rate pick up and your palms get clammy as you begin breathing faster…

You tell yourself, “it’s nothing, just ignore it” and try to grit your teeth and bear it.

 

You might be absolutely fine. 

But you might also find that once you enter the room, it becomes hard to focus and difficult to catch your breath. When someone asks a question, you find yourself scanning your brain for even a whisper of a response, only to find silence.

 

Interoceptive Awareness
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

 

When we don’t listen to our body’s signals in the short-term, it can cause us to choke up, experience brain fog, and can even lead to anxiety attacks. In the long-term, not listening to your body’s signals can lead to chronic stress, illness, and burnout.

This is where understanding our body’s signals can help us. Let’s go back to the scenario we began with.

 

You’re about to step into that meeting. Instead of trying to suppress your nerves, you take a moment to investigate them. In noticing them and accepting they exist and are affecting you, you can then choose to use techniques to help return your body to a relaxed state, allowing you to do your best and feel confident in your meeting.

In this way, interoceptive awareness empowers us to cultivate the mental and emotional states we choose, so we can sidestep the health consequences that accompany suppressing our emotions and physical signals, and instead greet life with confidence, happiness, and good health. [1]

Interoceptive Awareness
Photo by Jose A.Thompson

What is Interoceptive Awareness?

Interoception is defined as a sense of your body’s physiological state. In most cases, unless trained, interoception tends to be unconscious, prompting a domino effect of physical and emotional reactions that we don’t always understand. Interoceptive awareness refers to your ability to understand what’s going on in your body.

 

Interoceptive signals typically include those from your heartbeat, respiration, hunger and fullness, and autonomic nervous system activity affected by our emotions. It’s a skill that researchers have found can play a key role in emotional regulation skills and wellbeing. [1]

 

People who have honed in on their interoceptive awareness live in harmony with their body’s internal states through connection with their moment-to-moment physical experience. This provides individuals with deeper insight into the condition of their body, alongside their mental health and emotional experience. It also gives them the opportunity to shift their emotions and create a new experience that supports wellbeing.

 

What are the Benefits of Interoceptive Awareness?

Interoceptive awareness is a core component of many mindfulness practices. In fact, research has found that mindfulness and meditation actively impact the insula, which is a region of the brain linked to interoception. [1] It can also be found in practices like body scan meditations. This is because interoceptive awareness is grounded in the process of exploring our present moment physical experience.

 

Many people who find meditation difficult often use interoceptive awareness practices as gentle stepping stones into mindfulness.

Interoceptive awareness can benefit us in many ways, including helping to [1]:

  • Better manage stress
  • Improve emotional regulation
  • Enhance decision-making
  • Boost empathy
  • Reduce the frequency of stress-related illness
  • Prevent burnout
  • Give more control over emotional experiences
  • Strengthen our ability to cultivate calm and relaxed mental states
  • Enhance wellbeing

 

Interoceptive Awareness
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado

Interoceptive Awareness and the Heart

One of the most important internal organs that interoception can strengthen our connection with is the heart. The heart is responsible for supplying the body with essential nutrients and keeping it nourished. The heart also happens to be highly affected by our emotions, making our ability to read its signals that much more important. 

 

Once you gain interoceptive awareness of when your heart is stressed and under tension, you can begin using techniques to help you calm and relax it, so you can avoid overtaxing it and suffering cardiovascular issues in the future.

 

Interoceptive signals from the heart mainly refer to how fast your heart is beating. The faster it beats, the more stress it’s likely under. So when you notice your heart rate is high, that’s a signal to try to relax and slow your heart rate down.

 

Interoceptive Awareness and the Breath

Interoceptive awareness can also help you become more in touch with your breath, which research has found can hugely impact your emotions and wellbeing.

For instance, consider when you get nervous. Your breath will become more shallow as your body prepares for fast action. You may feel your chest grow tight and may even get lightheaded from not breathing into your diaphragm.

 

Research has found that not only do our emotions impact our breath, but the way we breathe can actually change how we feel! This makes interoceptive awareness of your breath that much more important, because you can help enhance your experience and ward off long-term stress-related conditions. [2]

 

Interoceptive Awareness and the Body

When we refer to interoception of the body, we don’t mean being aware of every single thing going on — that would be impossible. 

 

Instead, interoception of your body usually speaks to awareness of muscular tension, tightness, digestive issues, and aches and pains. All of these signals can be worsened (or instigated) by stress, making interoception and the calming techniques you can then apply that much more important.

 

Because our physical signals can be more layered and difficult to separate from each other, body scan meditations can be particularly helpful in training body interoceptive awareness. 

 

Train Your Interoceptive Awareness with Muse

interoceptive awareness, Muse, meditation

Becoming aware of your internal sensations and understanding how to train them can be tricky at first. That’s why we’ve launched the new Heart, Breath & Body program in the Muse app to help you get started.

This 12-step program will teach you how to tune in and includes practice sessions with real-time biofeedback sound cues to help you:

  • calm your nervous system
  • optimize your performance
  • find physical relaxation
  • feel less stress

Join the Heart, Body & Breath Meditation program >

(Mobile-only link) Available on app version 27 or higher.

 

Don’t have a Muse device? Become a Muser: Shop the Muse S (Gen 2) 

 

Resources:

  1. Explore the research on interoception HERE >>
  2. Read the Harvard Business Review’s article on the science of breath HERE >>

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