What the heck is interoception?
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Interoception. One of those strange words an Occupational Therapist probably made up to explain another one of all the myriad of things we do. We seem to do that a lot.
Did you know you have more than 5 senses? Did you know there are 8 senses that we know of, and there's probably even more that we haven't discovered yet?
I'm sure you've heard of the 5 senses- smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing. A couple others that are super important,and which I focus a lot on in therapy with children are the vestibular sense, your sense of movement in connection with your inner ear, and your proprioceptive sense, your sense of your body in space and where your body parts are. These senses are super important for helping the body regulate and to feel grounded in the environment.
Interoception is the sense that tells you whats going on inside your body. It's connected to your sense of hunger, thirst, temperature,energy levels, needing to use the toilet, and also your bodily responses to emotions. This sense is incredibly important,and its amazing how many children struggle with it!
Think of, for one, how strongly connected our internal sensations are with our emotions. For example, if I'm super hungry, I get irritable; if I have to use the bathroom really bad and can't find one, I get anxious; if I'm super nervous, my stomach feels upset.
Some children are over sensitive to interoceptive input. With slight changes in temperature, with a little bit of hunger they might get highly anxious. They might be incredibly sensitive to pain. These children might have difficulty with attention, because they are pre-occupied with what's going on inside their bodies. They might feel upset or anxious and not know why.
Other children are under sensitive to interoceptive input. They might not feel when they need to use the toilet and so may have frequent toileting accidents, or may hold their bowel movements and end up constipated. They might not feel full and will keep eating, or they might not realize they're tired or that they should put on another layer. These children often have difficulty recognizing emotions as well as they don't register their bodily cues such as a racing heart, or sweaty palms, or tense muscles.
So,how to we help a child who is struggling with the interoceptive sense? In my practice,I work with children to learn to recognize and understand internal cues through sensory experiments, explorations, and conversations about different sensations and their connections to emotions. Other activities that help bring greater awareness to the body and can help are mindfulness exercises, yoga, heavy work- using the body against resistance, and also having regular conversations about body sensations and emotions to help children, throughout their day, make these connections.