Interoception: Why you should dial-in to how your body is doing
Body awareness is incredibly important, whether you're dealing with pain and injuries or working with athletes looking to boost sports performance. However what is this vague term, and why should you care?
For ease of explanation I'll categorise this 'awareness' into 3 components (bear with me here, as there's no shortage of syllables): exteroception, proprioception and interoception. Although smart people have put fancy terms to these sensations, you should be well versed with what all of these are, whether you know their names or not:
- Exteroception is our response to what's going on around us: Our personal trainer telling us to keep our back straight and push our knees out during a squat, the sight of a ball being kicked at our head, the smell of your dinner burning. This covers our 5 senses (sight, taste, sound, touch, and smell).
- Proprioception is sometimes termed the sixth sense, it is our ability to know the positioning of each part of our body at any given time. (Interesting fact: if we didn't have proprioception, you'd probably be dead by now.) It is what allows us to close our eyes and bring the tip of our finger to our nose, or to successfully run up the stairs without looking down at our feet. Training proprioception is a fundamental part of recovery as this sense is often altered after injury, leaving patients more susceptible to future episodes or a reduction in performance.
- Interoception is the more interesting and less understood component of our body awareness, it is the term given to our ability to sense what our internal state is. How fast is your heart beating right now (if you don't allow yourself to check your pulse)? How full is your bladder? How does my stomach or digestive tract feel after that meal? Am I dehydrated, stressed, aroused, or sleep-deprived? This isn't something we are all equally proficient at, it is a skill that we learn throughout life: through our experience and our ability to inwardly listen to our body's functions and needs.
One of the advantages of the modern age—the internet—has actually had an insidious effect on our ability to be in touch with our bodies. It gives us instant access to information. Our social platforms are constantly feeding us instructions on how to live: how to exercise, what to eat or drink, and how to think about the world. Our brains are flooded with expert opinions and we strap devices to us that give us incredible amounts of data, this has benefited all of us in one way or another, but is there a cost?
The detriment I have witnessed in my profession is that it's easy to lose touch with our body's own reactions to what we are subjecting it to. Although the expert writing the article has written or read many studies, they haven't met you—or to a further extent, felt what you feel. This is important, as you are the only one who has any real first-hand experience on your internal state.
Part of what makes this life so interesting is the fact that we are not all the same; we respond and react differently to food, exercise, praise, spiders. Because of this, we cannot assume these experts know the exact path to our goals, and that we should blindly follow. As scary as it may seem, you need to captain your own body. This doesn't mean making all the decisions yourself but take any advice and reference this to how you feel or what you already know works for you.
"Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own."—Bruce Lee
A great way to do this is to sit without distractions. This could be called meditation, but it doesn't have to be—this word has all too many patients of mine giving me sideways looks when I suggest it, believing I'm about to sell them crystals and beads next. Although hippies may have been ahead of the curve on this one, there has been a substantial base of research over the past decade which supports these practices in reducing depression, improving sleep, reducing stress, helping with addictions and trauma, even improving aspects of our immune system.
So keep it simple, sit and focus your attention on how you are feeling at this very moment (try 3-5 mins). Repeat at different times during the week, to check-in on how you're doing. Then if issues arise, apply the scientific method to try to resolve them:
Ask a question: Why does my back hurt?
Create a hypothesis: Is it because I'm sitting like a soggy pretzel, not moving enough, and then I go straight into my weights routine?
Make a prediction: Maybe I'll feel better if every few hours I work standing up, and stretch/warm-up for 5-10mins before exercise.
Test your theory through experiment:Test your theory without expecting instant change, be patient.
Analysis: reduction in pain and improvements in health two weeks later.
Even if you can't work it out yourself and need help from a professional, you will have far more information to provide, and you will build off what you learn. With this tool, you can start to get to the root cause of your issues, be they injuries, anxiety, dysfunctional habits, bad relationships, poor sleep, digestive problems, etc.
Whether you follow a formal meditation practice or you just routinely stop and focus on what your body is telling you, the benefits can be felt across the board. Often not seen, these benefits are effective in the injuries we don't get, the frustrations that don't overwhelm us, and the arguments we don't have.
Too often we can get caught up in purely focusing on the sexier side of self-improvement—such as lifting heavier, running further, working harder. These are fantastic goals, but for many of us, we end up neglecting this quieter introspective and interoceptive time. So consider finding some time to dial-in and practice this, as it may be one of the most transformative ideas I could give you.
Ryan is a UK trained Osteopath and the Director of Calibrate: an Osteopathy & Physiotherapy practice on Orchard Rd, Singapore. He has a Masters Degree in Osteopathy, Sports Nutrition Certification and Master Functional Trainer Qualification.