When you feel stressed, you probably notice one or more of these sensations- tight muscles, a pounding head, racing heart, upset stomach, uncomfortably sweaty palms. When you are calm, perhaps you notice that your muscles are loose, your head is clear, and your stomach is content. Even when you are sleepy, you may feel your eyes are heavy, your brain is fuzzy, or your muscles are sluggish. These are all important body clues that allow you to figure out your current emotion. In fact, you are able to feel these body clues with the help of a little-known, but extremely important sensory system called interoception.
Your Interoception system is in-charge of collecting information about what is going on inside of your body—from areas such as your heart, stomach, intestines, muscles, skin, brain and even eyes. This information is sent to the brain where it is used to figure out how you are feeling at any given point in time. For example, information collected from the stomach might let you know that you feel hungry, full, gassy, or nauseous. Interoception is constantly working behind the scenes to let you know how you are feeling: are you hungry, thirsty, in pain, hot, cold, need the bathroom, sexually aroused, calm, angry, stressed out, or even sleepy?
“Research has found that people with good awareness of their internal body signals are more conscious of their emotions and are able to control and adjust their emotions with greater levels of success”, says Kelly Mahler MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist and author of the book Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System. In other words, if you are clearly aware of your internal body signals, you will likely have better control over your body and essentially mind. “The degree of Interoceptive awareness, or the ability to notice and make sense of internal signals, can vary between individuals”, says Mahler. Some people have good interoceptive awareness and are able to use internal information to urge them into healthy actions. For example, these people can clearly feel full and stop eating. They feel small levels of stress building and use a strategy to quickly decompress before the stress gets intense. On the opposite end, some people have poor interoceptive awareness and therefore may not detect certain internal body signals at all, or at least not until the signals are very, very intense. This can make quickly recognizing and managing emotions very difficult. James, a 30-year old software engineer, shares, “Quite often I don’t notice that I am getting stressed until I am at the boiling point. By then it is too late. I am far into the stress storm and it is difficult to come back out.”
Many times high levels of stress and anxiety can underlie sleep difficulties. Therefore, gaining better control over stress by increasing awareness of your internal body signals can lead to better sleep. “People with good interoceptive awareness are usually more in tune with what makes their body and mind feel calm. They tend to have a wider variety of self-calming strategies and are more successful at using these strategies”. In other words, people that are more aware of their internal signals are better able to calm their body and mind when it counts. And if you’ve ever laid awake at night tossing and turning and stressing over various aspects of life, you know that better control over your body and mind can really count in that moment.
If you are searching for a way to enhance interoceptive awareness and improve your sleeping habits, mindfulness meditation can be a great place to start. Meditation helps you to focus on the feelings, thoughts, and emotions occurring in your body and mind at the present moment. This can be done through various mindfulness exercises, and it doesn’t require a lot of time. For starters, you can try focusing your attention to your breath for 2-3 minutes and take notice to the sensations involved. Is your breathing fast, slow, shallow, deep? Can you feel the air moving through your nose, down your throat and filling your chest? If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
Interestingly, there is a brain-based explanation for why mindfulness can improve interoceptive awareness. Brain studies reveal that the insula, or the interoceptive center in the brain, is strongly activated during meditation. Those who participate in regular meditation have been found to have superior insula functioning, both structurally (thicker insula) and in terms of activity levels. On the opposite end, reduced insula function has been found in individuals with poor interoceptive awareness and is linked with certain conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and even autism. “Given that these conditions are all commonly associated with both reduced emotional control and sleep difficulties, it becomes important to consider poor interoceptive awareness as an important factor for treatment,” says Mahler.
Practice Makes Perfect
It is never too late to begin practicing mindfulness meditation and reap the benefits. Regular meditation practice can allow a person to essentially see themselves and their emotions with greater clarity. By making it a habit to become more aware of your interoceptive signals, you can gain better insight into your body and ultimately improve your control over stress. This in turn can lead to a calmer mind and a better night’s sleep. And the value of a better night sleep…priceless.
Authors: Cheryl Tierney, MD, MPH, Kelly Mahler, OTR/L, Brittany Friedson
Cheryl Tierney, MD, MPH is a Board-Certified behavior and developmental pediatrician who has been in practice since 2002. She is a native of Brooklyn, New York and completed medical school at Tufts University in Boston. Her pediatric residency was at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. She completed Fellowships in Health Services Research, where she received her MPH at Harvard School of Public Health as well as Behavior and Developmental Pediatrics in 2002. She is an active member of The Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (SDBP) as well as the Academic Pediatric Association (APA). She enjoys participating in outdoor activities with her family.
President, ABA in PA INITIATIVE
Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Section Chief, Developmental Pediatrics, Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital
© 2021 American Sleep Association.