Only recently heard of interoception? You’re not alone. Most of us were taught about the 5 senses in school. We now know that there are more and interoception is an important one. It is, however, still shrouded in mystery for many people. Today we will talk about what interoception is, why it matters for those with sensory processing disorder, and what you can do to help.
We know taste, see, smell, touch. These feel comfortably concrete and clear. What about sensations that happen where you can’t see? Let’s break down what interoception is a little more and give you a few examples.
Interoception = inside feelings
What is interoception? Interoception, in a nutshell, is the sensations that come from inside your body. These include a lot of territory. Your gastrointestinal tract, respiratory system, circulatory system, urinary and reproductive systems are all instigators.
How do you know that you are hungry or thirsty? Maybe a dry mouth, saliva running or an achy, rumbly, or empty belly feeling prompts you. Most people don’t think about these feelings, they just know they are hungry or thirsty. This is an indicator of interoception being well integrated. Your body is able to give sensations and translate them smoothly into something actionable. You take a drink or eat something and go on with your day.
Other internal sensations that we don’t necessarily think about are those that let us know that it is time to go to the bathroom. If we stop and think about what these sensations are, they can be very hard to describe! And yet, our bodies are able to take these small cues and prompt us to “take care of business”. Sometimes, if we are distracted or busy, these sensations get “louder” or more intense before the body can absorb the message and take action.
Feeling hot or cold is another set of sensations that are included in interoception. Pain, nausea, “butterflies” in the stomach and indigestion are yet more. When you’ve run a sprint after your toddler about to do something dangerous, it is interoception that lets you feel the racing heart, the pounding in your chest, and the feeling of fullness from the deep breath of relief.
Clues to emotion
Now, imagine that you are sitting down, opening your email and you get a notice that you forgot something important. Your heart may begin to race, your muscles may tense up, your mouth goes dry, and you may hold your breath or breathe shallowly. All of these sensations are interoception. These are also the cues that let let you know your emotional state, in this case, stress.
Interoception is also involved in feeling calm. You may breathe deeply and evenly when staring at a beautiful scene, lower your heart rate and your shoulders away from your ears as your muscles finally relax! Sometimes these calm and “just right” sensations are harder to notice, but they are important for how we feel and our overall self-regulation.
What is interoception like for someone with SPD? First, it is important to note that someone with sensory processing disorder may be impacted in only some and not necessarily all of the sensory systems. However, as interoception is an often overlooked system that can play such a big part in regulation, it bears some scrutiny.
Interoception and sensory processing disorder
If you have spent much time learning about SPD, you will know that it presents in many different ways. We often reference hypo or hyper responders when talking about sensory processing disorder. If you would like learn more about these terms, please click here. The quick version is that someone who is hypo sensitive may need more sensory input to register or meet their needs. This type is often referred to as a “seeker”. A hyper sensitive person is often very sensitive to sensory input and often finds it “too much”. This type is known as an “avoider”. We will use these very generalized categories to discuss some different presentations of SPD and interoception.
Seekers and interoception
A sensory seeker may not notice hunger or thirst easily because the internal cues do not register until very strong. They may also like the feeling of hunger pangs and opt not to eat in favor of them. Running a sprint may give them the pounding and full chest feeling that helps them feel grounded in their body.
These kiddos also may present like they just don’t notice pain or other internal cues. This includes bathroom cues. They may have more accidents or wait until the last minute and may be bedwetters. Seekers just seem to need more input to perceive it.
Avoiders and interoception
Now, avoiders of interoception can be a little trickier to identify. They may avoid feeling too full and only eat or drink small quantities. This can lead to getting hungry again soon and giving them frequent snack attacks. The feelings of hunger or thirst may also be unpleasant to them, making this a confusing problem for parents!
Also, avoiders may struggle more with pains, digestive movements, and easily are overwhelmed with feeling too cold or hot. Avoiding the full bladder sensation may cause them to go to the bathroom more frequently.
So, if you notice some of these issues what can you do to help your child? First of all, I always recommend that everyone do a daily sensory activity diet. Want to know more on how to do this? Check it out here. Generally, a sensory diet doesn’t target interoception, but it does help improve other systems and help with self regulation.
In particular, to address interoception it is important to start raising your child’s awareness of it. This is often best done by asking some questions. “Wow! You ran really fast. Do you feel your heart beating fast too?” Or, you can ask “what does it feel like when you know you need to go to the bathroom?” You can also point out your own feelings. ”I can feel my muscles are tense and I am breathing shallowly. I see signs I am getting frustrated!”
The next best thing is to let your kids see what actions you take as a result of those inside feelings. Show them that slow, calm breaths, a few gentle stretches and a water break can restore some calm. Undoubtably working on this together will bring you both some great benefit.