By Nicole Schnackenberg
Interoceptive awareness describes a lived sense of our bodies from the inside. It includes an awareness of our internal, physiological processes including heartrate, respiration (breathing) rate, body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, feelings of malaise and so on.
Interoceptive awareness is often found to be lacking in people with a wide range of mental health diagnoses, perhaps on account of the links between interoceptive awareness and our emotions. Emotions use the body as their stage and each of the aforementioned physiological processes alert us to the presence of various emotions in the body; i.e. increased heart rate may indicate feelings of anger, excitement or fear. Mental health struggles are often rooted, to some degree, in denied and repressed emotions. As we ignore and push down our emotions, we also ignore and push down our interoceptive awareness and can become cut off from the lived sensations of our bodies in the process.
A return to our emotions, therefore, necessitates a return to the internal processes of our physical organism, which is something the practice of yoga can support us with beautifully. In this post, we shall take a brief look at interoceptive awareness in relation to childhood attachment; a secure attachment to our primary caregiver enables us to more readily recognise, embrace and respond usefully to our emotions.
According to John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst and attachment theorist, children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others since it is these attachments that will secure their survival. Researchers have now repeatedly found evidence to suggest that secure attachments early in childhood are absolutely integral to healthy psychological development. Attachment security has been estimated to occur in around 58% of the population, with attachment anxiety occurring in 19%, and attachment avoidance in 23%.
It is perhaps not difficult to imagine why children with insecure or avoidant attachments to their primary caregivers might have poorer interoceptive awareness. When an infant cries or seeks assurance from, and attunement with, a primary caregiver, they naturally expect to be seen and soothed. Being contained, and having their emotions contained, by their primary caregiver enables the physiological processes related to stress to return to their baseline. The infant can breathe a sigh of relief – fear and stress typically reduces in tandem with the meeting of their emotional, physical and psychological needs.
If an infant’s emotional, psychological and physical needs are not met, their stress remains un-soothed and manifestations such as increased heart rate and breathing rate may persist. Over time, the infant may learn to ignore these physiological experiences of stress, perhaps shutting out their lived experience of them completely. They may become numb and despondent; what use is there in crying (or expressing any emotion) if nobody is going to comfort them anyway?
The research shows that infants with avoidant and insecure attachments experience an increased heart rate when their primary caregivers are not there to meet their needs, just as infants with a secure attachment do. Infants across the range of attachments experience the same physiological responses to stress; yet the securely attached infants cry out for help whilst many of the insecurely and avoidantly attached children fail to cry. Despite the strong messages of fear from their bodies, these tiny babies learn to ignore their physical sensations and refrain from seeking support. Over time, these physiological experiences may become dampened, or physical illnesses and additional mental health concerns may emerge out of the continuous levels of high physiological arousal without soothing.
Whilst the stage of our interoceptive awareness, therefore, may have been set in early infancy, our interoceptive sensitivities are not set in stone. We can increase our interoceptive awareness, and therefore our ability to recognise, acknowledge and assimilate our emotions, at any age. Yoga is one, highly effective, way of increasing this interoceptive awareness as it aids us in engendering a lived sense of our bodies from the inside, noticing physiological sensations such as breathing rate, heart rate, fatigue and so on without panic or fear. Multiple studies have expounded yoga’s efficacy in increasing interoceptive awareness. Here at the Minded Institute, we are pioneering ways of measuring this interoceptive awareness in various poses to enable us to develop truly individualised programs. We shall share our findings with you as they unfold. Namaste.