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 conditions including anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders, and addiction (2). By contrast, healthier levels of interoceptive awareness have been linked to a number of benefits including improved psychological wellbeing (3), rational decision making (4), and greater control over our emotions and different behaviours (5,6). For example, it has been shown experimentally that interoceptive awareness has been linked to a greater ability to recognise and process emotional signals (5). In this study, levels of interoceptive awareness were measured by how well participants could detect their own heartbeat. Those with higher interoceptive awareness were better able to recognise both pleasant and unpleasant emotional pictures which had previously been presented to them. Becoming more aware of our emotions may allow us to better respond and adapt our behaviour to the different emotional stimuli we face. Once we learn to recognise an emotion, 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 includes responding to internal cues (aka feelings of hunger or fullness), rather than eating in response to external environmental cues 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 makes us 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’ve already exceeded your calorie target for the day. Instead of listening to your body, diet culture tells us to ignore these inner 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 may still be feeling satisfied from your last meal, but you eat anyway because you can fit it into your calorie budget for the day so you may as well. Diet culture also teaches us not to trust ourselves when it comes to portion sizes and mealtimes, but encourages us to weigh food and stick to arbitrary rules about when, what, or how to eat. Often diets will categorize foods as either ‘good and bad’, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around certain food choices.
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 tell us what to do. The reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine our food choices signifies a large amount of trust and acceptance in our own body and feelings. This will involve honouring how you feel in the present moment and 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 interoceptive awareness is definitely not an overnight process, but there are some simple and mindful practices that may help you to become more in tune with your body. In fact, many ancient practices like yoga and meditation are all centred around the concept of mindfulness and body awareness. Some people believe that interoceptive awareness is a key component of mindfulness and may contribute to the benefits associated with these practices (9). Checking in with how your hunger and fullness levels change after a meal is one approach to increase your interoceptive awareness with eating. Try asking yourself, how do I feel eating this? How does the food taste? Even the simple act of slowing down whilst we eat can help us to become more aware and lead to greater feelings of satisfaction after a meal. Of course, tuning in with your body 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 an ongoing journey and there is no need to rush! Several apps such as Headspace are designed to verbally guide you along specific mindful practices, so you may find this helpful to start. Remember, nobody knows your body better than you so don’t overthink the process, just go with it.
Huge thanks to @wholesomely_hannah for this contribution.