Interoceptive awareness refers to our ability to notice, understand, and respond to physical sensations within the body (1). Ever notice your stomach rumbling when you haven’t eaten in a while? Or the goose bumps on your skin when it’s chilly outside? Most of the time we act on these sensations subconsciously without much thought. Interoceptive awareness involves becoming more consciously aware of these internal signals and taking action based on the signals we perceive. By tapping into our intuition and paying more attention to internal bodily signals, we can better respond to our own physiological needs and become more mindful towards our feelings.
Image by @wholesomelyhannah_
What are the benefits?
It is now recognised that disrupted interoceptive awareness may play a role in several mental health conditionsincluding anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders, and addiction (2). By contrast, healthier levels of interoceptiveawareness have been linked to a number of benefits including improved psychological wellbeing (3), rational decisionmaking (4), and greater control over our emotions and different behaviours (5,6). For example, it has been shownexperimentally that interoceptive awareness has been linked to a greater ability to recognise and process emotionalsignals (5). In this study, levels of interoceptive awareness were measured by how well participants could detect theirown heartbeat. Those with higher interoceptive awareness were better able to recognise both pleasant and unpleasantemotional pictures which had previously been presented to them. Becoming more aware of our emotions may allow usto better respond and adapt our behaviour to the different emotional stimuli we face. Once we learn to recognise anemotion, we can start to make sense of it and look for new ways to respond to or manage these feelings.
Interoceptive awareness and intuitive eating
Increasing interoceptive awareness plays a major role in the process of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating includesresponding to internal cues (aka feelings of hunger or fullness), rather than eating in response to external environmentalcues or our emotional states – although food is always linked to emotions and emotional eating is perfectly valid (7).The ability to listen and respond to these internal cues can allow us to eat in a way which supports our health and makesus feel satisfied. It also eliminates the need for diet plans or fitness apps that tell us what and when we should be eating,and instead relies on us listening to our own physiological needs (8).
Diet culture goes against interoceptive awareness and intuitive eating in several ways. Let me give you an example:you’re feeling really hungry because of a busy day at work, but your next meal isn’t for another few hours or you’vealready exceeded your calorie target for the day. Instead of listening to your body, diet culture tells us to ignore theseinner hunger signals and find ways to suppress them. However, because you are still hungry you end up eating anyway,and then continue to eat past the point of comfortable fullness because you’ve already ‘’messed up’’. Equally, you maystill be feeling satisfied from your last meal, but you eat anyway because you can fit it into your calorie budget for theday so you may as well. Diet culture also teaches us not to trust ourselves when it comes to portion sizes andmealtimes, but encourages us to weigh food and stick to arbitrary rules about when, what, or how to eat. Often dietswill categorize foods as either ‘good and bad’, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around certain foodchoices.
Learning to trust your body
A major part of interoceptive awareness is learning to trust your body and stepping away from the external cues that tellus what to do. The reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine our food choices signifies a large amount oftrust and acceptance in our own body and feelings. This will involve honouring how you feel in the present momentand trusting your body to best guide your actions. You’re entitled to feel hungry or full, so let’s honour these feelings!
The ability to tune in with your body and notice these internal signals is a skill in itself. Increasing your interoceptiveawareness is definitely not an overnight process, but there are some simple and mindful practices that may help you tobecome more in tune with your body. In fact, many ancient practices like yoga and meditation are all centred around theconcept of mindfulness and body awareness. Some people believe that interoceptive awareness is a key component ofmindfulness and may contribute to the benefits associated with these practices (9). Checking in with how your hungerand fullness levels change after a meal is one approach to increase your interoceptive awareness with eating. Try askingyourself, how do I feel eating this? How does the food taste? Even the simple act of slowing down whilst we eat canhelp us to become more aware and lead to greater feelings of satisfaction after a meal. Of course, tuning in with yourbody may take some time to get used to so don’t put too much pressure on yourself if it feels weird at first, this is anongoing journey and there is no need to rush! Several apps such as Headspace are designed to verbally guide you alongspecific mindful practices, so you may find this helpful to start. Remember, nobody knows your body better than you sodon’t overthink the process, just go with it.
Huge thanks to @wholesomely_hannah for this contribution.