I’ve been tired and napping a lot lately, which is unusual for me. I complained to my husband that I needed this to stop because it was interfering with my work. His response? “I’m glad you’re listening to your body.”
And he’s right, of course. My daily naps, sometimes 2 hours long, were not keeping me awake at night. My body clearly needed the rest.
There was a time I would have ignored it (or maybe even not noticed it) and pushed through (and I know I am incredibly lucky to have the flexibility in my schedule for a nap to even be in the realm of possibility). But I’ve done a lot of work in learning to be attentive to my interoceptive system.
Interoception is a lesser-known sense that helps you feel and understand what’s going on inside your body. Interoception is the collection of signals our bodies are constantly sending to our brains for a nuanced picture of our internal state. This is important for maintaining a healthy body system and for facilitating self-awareness.
For example, interoception is the sense that tells you when you’re hungry or need to sleep, that a muscle needs to be stretched you need a deeper breath, or that you need to find a bathroom. But it’s also the system that recognizes your heart is racing, your breathing has stalled, and you have butterflies in your stomach when you are nervous. It helps you recognize and understand your emotions.
For me, learning about interoception began before I even knew that word existed.
It started in Pilates and yoga classes, noticing when a stretch felt particularly good, or when a position was painful in my knee or low back. From that noticing, I started listening to what was good and bad for my body.
Then 10 years ago I started going to therapy and was told to notice what was happening in my body: any tightness in my shoulders, clenching in my stomach or jaw, aching in my heart, a lump in my throat. I didn’t know it, but I was learning that we actually feel feelings in our bodies. All emotions start with a physical sensation. In an effort to not feel the discomfort of “bad” emotions, I didn’t feel any, not even the good ones. All I felt was numb.
Years of meditation (on and off) helped me to develop a better sense of what’s happening in my body, both physiologically and emotionally. As meditation teacher Cara Lai explains “making space to let feelings flow in meditation can help us find clarity and agency when emotions are super strong in the rest of life. Instead of being controlled by our emotions, we can use them to inform our decisions, letting them move through us and with us without hurting those around us. And life gets a lot easier when we’re free to be ourselves.”
Still, it wasn’t always easy to have a good relationship with my emotions. Learning to modulate our reactions requires us to have a well-operating interoceptive system. A maladaptive system occurs when the brain over- or under-responds to sensory input. With interoception, over- or under-responsiveness can be caused by either stronger or weaker than typical neural signals, or the way the brain perceives those signals.
Fast-forward to 2022 and I was finally ready to work on this by seeing another therapist who specializes in EMDR (Mandy had seen a lot of benefits from EMDR and encouraged me to give it a try). During sessions, I take time with those physical and emotional feelings so I can process them and learn to feel them move through me to completion. It’s a truly fascinating process. It can also be really, really hard. But it’s been extraordinarily freeing and life-changing. I am starting to take less for granted and appreciate ordinary moments more and more.
Even more recently, Mandy and I have been taking classes on brain-based movement related to reflexes and the nervous system. It’s all so interesting…. everything is related! In those classes we talk a lot about noticing (I’ve used that word a lot, for a reason!). It’s using your interoception to your benefit. The founder of Brain Gym says, “Noticing, with the self-awareness and self-directed decision making that it requires, represents the optimal development of the prefrontal cortex, working in concert with the brain stem and sensory system, and is the key to high-level cognitive functioning.”
Early in our Brain Gym class, our instructor walked us through a couple of ways to talk with clients about noticing. A fun one to use, especially with kids, is the spaghetti method. Here it is:
- Show me uncooked spaghetti (they usually stand up straight and rigid with hands at their sides).
- Show me overcooked spaghetti (one of my kids fell to the floor, the other slumped over like the head of a cooked asparagus stalk because “overcooked spaghetti clumps together”)
- Show me perfectly cooked spaghetti (kid 1 stood comfortably, kid 2 laid on the floor)
It doesn’t matter what their response is, just that they notice how it makes them feel. Then, when we’re working through some movement and I ask them how they feel, they can relate back to the spaghetti metaphor and I’ll have a little more knowledge about whether they feel tense, relaxed, overly relaxed, or even clumped together.
When I was dragging and needed those naps, I definitely felt like overcooked spaghetti. Can you take a minute and see how you would show those 3 states?
Like proprioception and the vestibular system (which I described in an earlier blog), interoception is another sense that we are still learning about. And we’re finding just how important it is. I encourage you to take some time to get curious about interoception and about how you feel in your own body.