Interoception is often known as the “hidden sense” and is referred to as the eighth sensory system. It is the sense that tells us what is happening inside our bodies. Have you ever felt tired, hungry, cold, thirsty or like you need to go to the bathroom? It is the interoceptive system that helps you sense what’s happening inside your body.
What is the Interoceptive System?
The interoceptive system has special nerve receptors which are located throughout our bodies including internal organs, bones, muscles and skin. These receptors send information to the brain. The brain interprets this information and uses it to tell us how we feel. The interoceptive system helps our bodies stay in a state of optimal balance, which is known as homeostasis. People with good interoceptive processing skills are able to respond quickly to the input. They receive and maintain their body in a state of balance. For example, when they feel cold, they put on a jumper and when they feel dehydrated they have a drink to restore balance to their bodies. In addition to controlling all these sensory inputs, the Interoceptive system is also responsible for helping us control our emotions.
How does the Interoceptive System affect Emotions?
Emotions are linked to physical sensations in our bodies. For example, when you feel anxious you may feel like you have butterflies in your stomach or when you notice that someone has put graffiti on your front fence, you will feel angry. Your heart will beat quickly, your muscles will tighten, and you will start getting hot. Interoception is recognising these sensations. This is how interoception is linked to our emotional system. It has been proven that our ability to read our own physical signs is directly related to how well we can identify and self-regulate our emotional states. For example, if you can feel your self-getting tense from anger, you know to slow down and take a few deep breaths. Being able to read your own physical signs and emotional states, directly impacts our ability to read another person’s physical and emotional state.
Interoception and Sensory Processing Disorder
A well-functioning interoceptive system can sense what the body needs and act to maintain the body in a state of homeostasis. However, the interoceptive system like all the other sensory systems can have processing difficulties. A person can have difficulty modulating sensory input in this system. A person may be over-responsive to interoceptive inputs. E.g. they may have a heightened reaction to pain. Someone who is under-responsive to interoceptive inputs may not feel pain until it hits a really intense level.
A person can also have sensory discriminative problems in this system. While they can sense vague sensory inputs, they are not able to accurately identify the meanings. E.g. they may not be sure if they are hungry, need to go to the bathroom, or about to vomit. This confusion can make a person anxious because he doesn’t know what his body needs. This leads to them becoming overwhelmed by emotion and they often react in negative ways like have a meltdown, get aggressive or laugh inappropriately.
What else does the Interproception System Impact?
The interoceptive system is the basis for our physical and emotional regulation and therefore, it also affects self-regulation, social thinking, flexible thinking, problem-solving and the development of social skills.
What can we do to Improve Interoception?
To help your child develop their body awareness and teach them to start tuning in to what their body feels like when it is balanced, incorporate these activities into their daily routine.
- Yoga – focuses on listening to your body and providing good proprioceptive and vestibular input. It encourages you to look internally and focus on how the body and mind if feeling.
- Mindfulness – gives the person time to focus on their body and emotional state.
- Breathing exercises – like lazy 8. Breathing exercises are calming and also help us to pay attention to what is going on inside our bodies.
- Heavy work activities – involve large muscles of the body. Proprioception is good for body awareness and also for interoception.
- Alerting activities – to help you feel what a racing heart and fast breathing feels like.
Research shows that working with an Occupational Therapist who is trained in sensory processing and can develop and implement strategies for a child-directed at their specific interoception subtype can improve a child’s interoceptive system.
Occupational Therapy Helping Children is one of the leading centres in Sydney for the treatment of Sensory Processing Disorder. If you have concerns about your child’s ability to accurately process sensory information give us a call on 02 9913 3823.