What Is Interoception?

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What is interoception and how to help recognise your body’s emotional and physical cues

A rumbling sound from your stomach telling you you’re hungry, a dry mouth telling you you’re thirsty, heavy eyes telling you you’re tired – all signals your body sends you to get you to take action and fulfil what you need. There’s a word for what I’m talking about and it’s interoception.

Interoception is how you perceive what’s going on inside your body. It’s pretty important because this system helps you get what your body needs when your body needs it.

For some Autistic, ADHD or other neurodivergent folks, interoception can be an elusive thing. You might struggle with noticing these signs your body gives. Often not getting the signals when they’re needed means that you may not recognise when you’re hungry, thirsty, or needing the toilet.

Interoception is also responsible for those signals that tell us about our emotions. For example, a tight chest signalling some anxiety, feeling red hot when angry or a gut-clenching feeling that can indicate fear. So, if you have problems with your interoception system, it stands to reason you may also have trouble understanding your emotions. This can mean emotions can spring up on you without much warning.

Sometimes also the inverse can be true where some people are hyper aware to some bodily sensations. Maybe you feel your heart thumping in your chest, or you feel the need to go to the toilet frequently. This might make you feel constantly anxious, or panicky.

The signals could also get confused. So maybe you feel something in your stomach and you think you’re going to be sick and then, after you’ve eaten something you feel better – actually you were hungry!

Interoception difficulties can affect you in a number of areas. For instance you might not realise when you’re overheating, or perhaps you don’t feel the cold and will have trouble dressing according to the weather. You might not recognise signals that tell you when your stomach is full, leading to overeating or binge eating.

So you can see how interoception is important and how having difficulties with this will make it very hard for autistic, ADHD and other neurodivergent people to make sense of their internal world.

What can I do to help?

Thankfully there are a few tips and tricks you can try to build awareness of your body sensations and to find ways to combat the difficulties.

1. Body Scan

One thing I often ask of my clients who have this issue is to start building a regular practice of checking with their body.

A ‘body scan’ is a quick way to do this. Spend a minute ‘scanning’ through your body to see how things feel – do you have a headache, a dry mouth, sore shoulders from holding them tensely up by your ears? Are you arms relaxed? How does your stomach feel? Work your way down your body and, when you get to the end, ask yourself “what does my body need?” The answer might be “rest” or “hydration”, “or “food”. Try to listen to this and act on it.

Doing the body scan does three things; it helps you get used to noticing your body sensations, it helps you practice checking in with your needs, and it is a quick mindfulness practice which brings your attention to the here and now (this can reduce feelings of anxiety and help calm your body and mind).

2. Emotional Literacy

2 yellow emoji cushions inside a box

In order to help with emotions that seemingly come out of nowhere, spend some time mapping out where you might feels emotions in your body. You could even draw it on an image of a body and mark out what you feel. So perhaps when you get panicky you feel your throat tightening, or your palms start to sweat. Note all this down and try to do it for lots of different emotions.

The more awareness you can bring to your emotions and their associated sensations, the easier it will be to catch them before they become too overwhelming. For tips on what to do when you start to recognise yourself feeling overwhelmed, check out my article, 3 Mindful Moments, or download my free grounding technique poster on my Shop page.

3. Mindful Movement

Moving your body in mindful way can be especially helpful to start reconnecting your mind and your body. Try things like yoga, Tai Chi, or dance and really pay attention to what you experience in your body. You don’t have to go to a class, YouTube has a host of different videos you can follow along to in your living room.

4. Counselling

Counselling can offer a safe space to explore some of this. It’s especially helpful for exploring emotions and how they feel in the body and a counsellor will help you to build your emotional literacy and to get better at communicating your needs. It may be worth considering a counsellor with experience of neurodivergence or who is neurodivergent themselves so you can be assured they have the knowledge to help you.

You may also like to look at my Neuro Cards, a resource for therapists and individuals who want to explore neurodivergent traits in an affirming way. They are available in my Etsy shop here.

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us below

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