One of the biggest problems in the world is that people don't feel themselves properly. —Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, meditation master
Are you struggling with anxiety? You are not alone! Anxiety disorders are the most common problems that affect our lives. What if a scientist would tell you that your own body – your interoceptive awareness – can help you with anxiety?
A free, easy, and scientific way for treatment! Meet your interoceptive mind!
As the basis for the 'how I feel' question, the interoception comprises sensing the body's condition. Through our interoception, we sense pain, temperature, itch, muscle tension, hunger, sensual touch, stomach discomfort, intestinal stress, and many other sensations. Being aware of our internal state helps us maintain and regulate our internal body state.
For all of us, even for animals, the emotional processes are influenced by signals from the body. In other words, our bodies control and manage our feelings and emotions. So, before getting angry with somebody, yelling at your child, or being rude in your daily activities, think about the reality; YOU (your body) are responsible for your reactions, and you can manage it!
When we use the term anxiety, we refer to a group of different disorders. Some are panic disorder, chronic worrying, traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety. However, we can deal with our emotions for any type of anxiety. So, we win the game and manage our emotions when we know how to listen to ourselves, understand what we feel, and improve our interoceptive awareness. Results? A happier, healthier you and a better social life!
Before talking about the three easy ways to learn how to use your interoception against anxiety, always remember the below notes from scientific studies:
- The close relatives/family members of the people with anxiety disorders report a higher frequency of 'panic' disorders (1).
- Interoceptive sensitivity plays a vital role in the trait of anxiety (2).
- Even an acute change in serotonin levels can increase interoceptive insight (3).
- Interoceptive training increases the decision-making ability (4).
If you are ready for three essential interoception tips for anxiety - here you are!
1- Follow your breath
Breath! This world's first gift to us. Our first breath is the start button for our life, and the last breath is its end. But how many of us listen to our breath? How many of us are thankful for each breath we take?
Please do this now – give it a try. Wherever you are now, take a deep breath. Hold it until you need to release (counting to 5 can work). Now remove it slowly. Try to feel the change in the air temperature during inhalation and exhalation. You can realize how your body reacts to these sensory breathes and how your chest or belly moves with each breath. Let's do it together just a few times.
Take – hold – release…
We did around a thirty-second breathing exercise. What did change? Let me explain what happened during this short but one of the most effective interoception exercises.
First of all, you want to give it a try to communicate with your body and listen to it. Your brain gets a message from this communication and stimulates your vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve runs the messages between the brain and body. For example, the rhythm of breathing creates an electrical activity in our brains which enhances our emotional judgments.
Whenever you do the breathing activity (as one of the critical factors of mindfulness), you activate your interoceptive awareness and start to observe internal sensations, thoughts, and feelings. During the breathing exercises, especially if you do them regularly, your insula starts to activate. Insula is a tiny part of our brains, the central region for interoception. And it is also responsible for emotional awareness and regulation.
Behavioral research scientists observed that the ability to sustain mindful attention on the breath for eighteen minutes is associated with more minor depressive symptoms (5). Anxiety, depression, sadness, addictions, repetitive thinking, chronic pain, and negative feelings are all found in a relationship with breathing.
2- Take care of your food
We have already been aware of the relation between anxiety and eating disorders; however, thanks to science, taking this from an interoceptive perspective helps to understand the concept better.
For example, it was shown that the mistrust of one's interoceptive afferents, in general, is associated with eating disorder symptoms. Although eating disorders or habits come with other issues like anxiety and depression (approximately 65%), we can manage it by eating for our interoception and health!
Interoception is an excellent tool for understanding bodily needs, primarily when focusing on digestive interoception. Each has different interoceptive signaling processes that send messages to our brains, starting from the look of the meal, then taste perception, swallowing, and esophageal, gastric, and intestinal transits. On the other hand, interoception is bi-directional, between body and brain. So, when we eat healthy and clean, timely and enough, we will keep our bodies, brains, and interoception happy and emotional solid regulation.
When we say clean and healthy eating, actually it is not very difficult to take care of.
- Stay away from processed foods as much as possible.
- Stay away from 'forever on shelf' type foods (if they are protected well with an extended expiration date, it probably has lots of chemical preservatives).
- Try to eat organic as much as possible.
- Buy the vegetable and fruits on their actual session and always check the labels.
- Consume fermented food and probiotics & prebiotics – they are fantastic support for interoception and anxiety.
- Do not eat after 7 pm and drink warm water with lemon during the early mornings.
- The three whites – salt, sugar, and flour, are not your friends. Limit them as much as possible.
- You can improve your serotonin and dopamine levels with food (salmon, eggs, spinach, nuts, pineapple, coffee, strawberries, chocolates)! Did you know that the intestines produce 95% of serotonin?
3- Try mindfulness (even during a short walk!)
When you hear mindfulness, you may think about a very sophisticated environment, a particular space to do it, or a long time to learn and experience it, right? But, listen, for any mindfulness practices, you only need yourself.
Mindfulness is a process that leads to a mental state characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You can start a mindfulness lifestyle by starting with breathing exercises. You can improve your ability on mindfulness over time, and you can do it even while you are walking.
Just give it a try to improve your interoceptive awareness.
Science shows evidence that miscommunications between our brain and body can initiate and perpetuate anxiety symptoms. Having anxiety is not lovely for sure. And you are not the only one dealing with it. You are responsible for yourself plus your loved ones. Keep your life at its most practical level and help your loved ones. Listen to your emotions.
Life is too short for any negativity – don't you want to live happier and healthier?
Stay in touch with your body! —Dr. Nihan
If you would like to read more about this topic and find more exercises, you can read The Interoceptive Mind: How to Become Your Most Effective Self by Improving Your Interoception and Microbiome!
(1) Ehlers, A. (1993). Somatic symptoms and panic attacks: A retrospective study of learning experiences. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 31(3), 269-278.
(2) Domschke, K., Stevens, S., Pfleiderer, B., Gerlach, AL. (2010). Interoceptive sensitivity in anxiety and anxiety disorders: An overview and integration of neurobiological findings. Clinical Psychology Review. 30(1), 1-11.
(3) Livermore, J.J.A., Holmes, C.L. Moga, G. et al. (2022). A single oral dose of citalopram increases interoceptive insight in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology.
(4) Sugawara, A., Terasawa, Y., Katsunuma, R. et al. (2020). Effects of interoceptive training on decision making, anxiety, and somatic symptoms. BioPsychoSocial Med 14, 7.
(5) Burg, J.M., Michalak, J. (2011). The healthy quality of mindful breathing: Associations with rumination and depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 35:179–185.