Girl smiling and making a heart with her hands
Girl smiling and making a heart with her hands

Part 1: Interoception the hidden sense key to wellbeing

When someone asks you to name all the human senses, we bet you can quickly list touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.  Most people are surprised to learn that there are three other less well known senses

Need to know

When someone asks you to name all the human senses, we bet you can quickly list touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.  Most people are surprised to learn that there are three other less well known senses: vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (movement) and interoceptive (internal).

In the last few years researchers have become particularly interested in interoception and its influence in physical and mental health, self-regulation and social connection. Put simply, interoception refers to your ability to recognise and interpret signals from your body. 

Why it’s important

Interoception is critical in monitoring all the different parts of your body, collecting the information and then delivering it to your brain so that it can make decisions about keeping you in a balanced, neutral state called homeostasis.

Although most of this monitoring and balancing happens outside of our conscious awareness, we can consciously direct our attention to these signals. For example, can you feel your heart beating (interoceptive accuracy) or how often do you notice your heart beating (interoception attention). Everyone’s interoception abilities differ, but for some individuals these differences can cause many challenges.

Children and adults who have issues with interoception might:

  • Not drink enough water because they can’t detect when they are thirsty
  • Eat more past satiety because they can’t recognise that they are full
  • Have toileting accidents because they haven’t noticed they need to go to the bathroom
  • Hurt themselves frequently because they have difficulty interpreting pain
  • Hate wearing socks because they are hyper aware of the tightness around their feet

Researchers have found that these differences in interoception can also underlie behaviour, specifically how your child experiences emotions and how they make decisions. A child who is attuned to changes in their body is more likely to be aware of their emotions and be able to self-regulate.

Each feeling your child experiences begins when the brain has received signals communicating a change to their body’s internal state, through interoception, in turn shaping your child’s behaviour. There is evidence that shows links between difficulties with interoceptive awareness and issues with emotion regulation.

Teaching your child interoceptive awareness can be a powerful tool to help them learn to self-regulate. 

Tips & strategies

Although there is very limited research on the effectiveness of interventions to improve interoceptive awareness, there are some early indications that they may have positive influences. 

Note: Please ensure that these strategies are implemented under the care of a clinician, especially if your child has a suspected or diagnosed eating disorder, depression, trauma or acute pain. 

Strategy 1: Use prompts

Describe the internal sensations your child can be aware of and give them some clues on how to check for signals:

  • Hunger/fullness – when did you last eat? Is your tummy rumbling?
  • Thirst – when did you last have a drink? Does your mouth feel dry?
  • Need for the toilet – when did you last go to the bathroom? Are you feeling pressure near your bladder?
  • Tiredness – is it bedtime? Are your eyelids feeling heavy?
  • Internal pain/discomfort – is it hard to swallow? Is your throat feeling sore?
  • Internal temperature – is it a hot day? Are you sweating?
  • Feelings and emotions – what happens to your body when you are angry? Do you feel your jaw clench?
  • Stress response – did something unexpected happen? Is your heart beating quickly?

Reinforce sensations when they happen by naming sensations, body areas and possible feelings. The bigger a child’s vocabulary of emotions, body parts and sensations the better.

  • Example: you are yawning and your eyelids look very heavy, looks like you are tired and ready for sleep. When you get too tired you become cranky as well.
  • Example: you’ve scraped your knee, it’s quite a big sore and it looks painful. 
  • Example: you didn’t eat anything in your lunchbox, your tummy might be feeling very empty. It’s best to have a snack because last time this happened you were getting cranky with everyone.

In part 2 of this article we will be discussing 3 more strategies to help you work with your child on their interoceptive awareness. Read Part 2: Interoception the hidden sense key to wellbeing 

References

  1. Helping children with interoceptive awareness
  2. Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT)
  3. Interoceptive Awareness and ADHD
  4. Interventions and Manipulations of Interoception
  5. Interoception: A Multi-Sensory Foundation of Participation in Daily Life
  6. What is Interoception and Why is it Important?
  7. Impact of an Interoception-Based Program on Emotion Regulation in Autistic Children

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