Skills to Build Interoceptive Awareness
What is Introspection?
Introspection is looking inward to examine one’s own thoughts and feelings.
When we reflect on our thoughts, emotions, and memories to examine what they mean we are engaged in introspection.
Introspection holds value, and it can also go sideways. It can become a form of armchair soul-searching—a way to mentally understand and make meaning, but it can still bypass any input from the subconscious mind.
Research has also shown that people are largely unaware of the inner-workings of their own minds, and they are surprisingly unaware of this unawareness. We call these unawarenesses cognitive biases. Despite cognitive biases, or maybe because of them, people tend to be very confident in their introspections.
When evaluating one’s self and others, a person will give greater weight to introspections about themselves while simultaneously judging others on their outward behavior. In other words, we have a cognitive bias that leads us to believe our intentions matter more than our actions, while the actions of another matters more than their intentions. Without consideration for such biases, introspection doesn’t provide useful or accurate information. Yet, people remain confident that their interpretations are correct, a phenomenon known as the introspection illusion. One way to start to overcome this is with interoception.
What is Interoception?
Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body. It’s listening to what your body is telling you, but you’re not listening with your ears—you’re listening with your brain and your being, and that means you can expect a little neuroscience today!
Interoception includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heart rate, respiration, and satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions (Vaitl, 1996; Cameron, 2001; Craig, 2002; Barrett et al., 2004). These are important to become aware of because these are the physiological functions in the body that can become dysregulated by trauma. Many of these ‘felt-sense’ perceptions remain unconscious to our explicit mind. Through interoceptive awareness, which involves the observation and processing of inner sensations, non-verbal, sensory messages that our implicit mind sends to the explicit mind can become available to our conscious awareness (Cameron, 2001). It’s through our conscious awareness that we are able to identify what needs processing, healing, and integrating within us. In other words, interoception is fundamental to healing the trauma imprints held by the body.
If you’re wondering about the link between the body and the subconscious mind…the body IS the subconscious mind! It communicates non-verbally, so only using words to process your past trauma will only take you so far until you eventually plateau.
Why is Interoception so important?
This part requires some neuroscience because the WHY is directly tied to your physiology.
Our ability to be interoceptive is largely governed by the insular Cortex in the brain. The insular cortex, also known as the insula, is a deep layer of the cerebral cortex. It’s buried behind the lateral sulcus of the brain, and it’s part of the Limbic System or the center of emotion and memory in the brain.
The insula and the amygdala are both in the limbic region, and the amygdala is the fear center of the brain. It’s the fire alarm that often gets pulled, even when there isn’t actually a fire or a threat. Because of the connection between the amygdala and the insula, it’s important to first settle the amygdala.
What’s the first step to healing trauma?
A lot of techniques—somatic techniques, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindfulness practices, etc.—are important to relaxing the body and sending signals up to the brain that will calm the amygdala and turn off the fire alarm signal.
What is the next step in healing trauma?
There’s a larger goal to actually work with trauma, especially if the trauma has caused a disconnect between mind and body through numbing and dissociation.
When the body and mind have been ripped apart, the mind will often override the body — which is where the numbing comes from. The two must come back together for healing to occur. Feeling into the body is a necessary skill to develop for trauma healing approaches.
We must get the insula online and working again. That’s because the insula is a limbic structure in the brain that allows us to sense our bodies — it’s what allows us to be Interoceptive. The insula is responsible for allowing us to sense internal signals, such as temperature, hunger, and anxiety, and it’s also key to our proprioception. Without the insula online, people can get stuck in introspection, which is simply the conscious, explicit mind trying to process the conscious, explicit mind.
To process emotion, we must first experience emotion. To experience emotion, we need the ability to feel and sense into the body. If we aren’t feeling into the body interoceptively, then we aren’t really experiencing our emotions. That’s referred to as emotional bypassing, and the thinking, introspective mind is quite skilled at bypassing feelings and emotions. When a client engages in interoception, the feelings and sensations give the mind new data to process. It’s when the same client engages in introspection–after interoception–that new insights, A-Ha moments, innovative solutions, and profound meanings start surfacing. In other words, it’s a skill worthy of developing for anyone, not only those who are working toward trauma healing.
I suspect interoception in trauma healing is why so many trauma survivors experience a phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Growth. They come out the other side of their trauma stronger, more resilient, and more confident in themselves than they were before. I also suspect a lack of interoceptive skills is why some get stuck. I was stuck for years, and when the interoceptive skills finally clicked, I came out of that stuckness pretty quickly.
What happens when the insula is underactive?
A person will have a hard time feeling and sensing internal experiences. The person might experience ambiguous or vague feelings. They might say, “I feel like crap”, or “I just don’t feel very good”, but they won’t be able to expand on what that actually means. An underactive insula is associated with numbing, whether it’s chronic emotional numbing or physical numbing—it’s likely an underactive insula. Cutters often fall into this category, and on an unconscious level, their behaviors are actually less about self-harm and more about feeling again. Not understanding the physiology behind these behaviors is what leads to stigma, and the stigma makes it even worse. It becomes a feedback loop.
What happens when the insula is overactive?
A person will focus on every little sensation in the body. An overactive insula is related to anxiety and panic. Let’s say a person with an overactive insula notices that their heart is racing. This can lead to the mind catastrophizing that the person is having a heart attack, and can lead to an ER visit. In this case, the insula is both telling you the truth—your heart rate is elevated—and it’s also lying to you. No—you’re not actually having a heart attack.
How do you get the insula back online?
When the insula isn’t intact and working, there’s really no lasting trauma work we can do. Developing interoceptive skills to get the insula back online is important.
There are many ways to get the insula back online. Practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, dance, movement, or anything that helps to connect the mind and body can start to re-engage the insula. I teach a technique in my resiliency workshop, and this is a great place to begin. The key is to allow yourself to FEEL into your body. You’ll grow your capacity to feel a wider range of emotions — and that means you’ll experience more joy, more happiness, and more pleasure in life. The caveat is you’ll also feel more anger, sadness, and fear. Don’t let that scare you! When you have more capacity, the so-called “negative” feelings don’t have the same impact. Even though the feeling is bigger, the impact of that feeling isn’t as detrimental to your health and well-being.
For more information on this topic watch Jennifer’s video on YouTube here: Skills to Build Interoceptive Awareness
To support your practice, download two FREE Breathing infographics with step-by-step instructions.
I’m Jennifer Whitacre, trauma specialist, empowerment strategist, and shadow guide, and I help people strengthen their internal relationships through a process of SELF-discovery. I guide and support my clients through the transformative process of developing SELF-presence so they can shift from rigidity, reactiveness, and chaos into more flexibility, responsiveness, and connectedness.
People who are able to make this internal shift find they have more agency, decisions aren’t as difficult, they have more emotional stamina to deal with life’s ups and downs, and they have much higher levels of empathy and understanding for themselves and others.
The process is similar and unique for each client. Healing the invisible wounds inflicted from past trauma requires that we become familiar with non-verbal communication. That’s because the subconscious mind communicates non-verbally and unconsciously, the opposite kind of communication valued by the conscious mind. By understanding our own subconscious minds, the two minds become coherent and our lives naturally become more integrated.
Learn more at: jenniferwhitacre.com
This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a practitioner/client relationship with Jennifer Whitacre or with Jennifer Whitacre LLC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional. If you are interested in becoming a client of Jennifer Whitacre LLC, please connect by visiting: jenniferwhitacre.com