Interoception body mindfulness executive function

Interoception: What Our Body Tells Us About Executive Functioning

As a nine year old, I waited backstage before stepping out to play the piano. 

My hands were sweaty and cold. I hated clammy hands, almost as much as I hated the word “clammy”. 

Even though I loved performing, my hands always reminded me that I was also a little bit nervous. That, and I always felt like I had to pee no matter how recently I used the bathroom. (TMI, anyone?) 

This is such a vivid memory to me as a kid, to the point that my hands have started to turn clammy just thinking about it! Does anyone else have those telltale signs of certain emotions?

What is Interoception?

Those signs – whether it be a growling stomach, flushed cheeks, or tightness in our chest – communicate to us. They are communicating what we perceive about our environment, state of being or what emotion we are experiencing.

Interoception was a new term to me. But I was recently listening to the podcast Full Prefrontal where the guest, Kelly Mahler, was explaining the connection between interoception and executive function. 

According to Dr. Mahler, interoception is “a sense that provides information about the internal condition of our body—how our body is feeling on the inside.” This sense – almost like the more commonly identified senses of sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell – is what actually allows us to experience essential emotions.

Interoception and Executive Function

Memory

Let’s take this home to what we do at The Chicago Family Tutor. Your child is scoring lower than expected on tests at school and you can’t figure out why. You have asked them about what happens during the test, but all they can tell you is that they ran out of time or couldn’t remember what they studied. That is a frustrating experience as a parent, not knowing how to help your child. 

In some cases, it may be that they are experiencing high anxiety and just not able to identify the emotion. Because they are not attuned to what their body is telling them. 

Anxiety

Everyone experiences emotions differently. A lot of the time, how we understand our emotions is not through what is visible to the human eye such as our face, hands, feet, skin. Rather, we understand our emotions through what is invisible – our heart, organs, intestines, lungs, muscles, stomach, bladder, brain. 

It may take some time and a little practice to name sensations and connect that with emotions, but this can be key to accurately assessing what is going on. In college, I was experiencing some troubling health issues that only much later I understood as signs of anxiety. I never considered myself an anxious person so had mentally taken that possibility off the table, and I was not attuned to my body’s senses that were trying to tell me to slow down, make some important decisions about what I was doing and how I was spending my time, and do some self-care.

In the test scenario, running out of time or being unable to recall information could be anxiety and actually identified through recognizing that they were short of breath, their intestines were tight, or their heart was racing. As a parent you can walk your child through understanding interoception as a sense by asking “what did you feel in your heart/your stomach/your lungs, as you were taking the test?” 

Attention

Another way that interoception is helpful in Executive Functioning is around issues of attention. Perhaps your child is getting frequent feedback from their teacher that they are not paying attention at school and at home they struggle with finishing their assignments. Often this is related to the need to move. This shows itself when they are unable to sit for long periods of time or when they engage in a lot of distracting physical movements.

Interoception helps us understand that sometimes our body is telling us that we need to move in order to effectively learn. Instead of seeing this as a behavioral issue to be punitively corrected, there are some strategies for working with their body’s need to move and still engage in learning. You could try building in more times of movement at home or consult with the teacher about using a wiggle cushion at their desk at school. 

Self-Regulation

Finally, self-regulation is a core cognitive Executive Function skill that can be developed more effectively by being in tune with our interoception sense. Many times we are surprised when we burst out in anger or a child has a temper tantrum. The emotion caught us off guard because we missed key signals from our body telling us that we were feeling insecure, scared, frustrated, or ignored.

What Can You Do Today?

I would encourage you to take some time each day this week to go through an awareness checklist to develop this skill in yourself. Start with what is visible – your face, hands, feet, skin. What are you feeling? Earlier in the day, what do you remember feeling when you were in a stressful situation? Then go to what is invisible – your lungs, heart, muscles, stomach, intestines, bladder, brain. What are you feeling? How can you intentionally relax and breathe out some of that pent up stress and energy? It might surprise you what a difference it can make!

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