Monday, April 20, 2015

Feel It To Heal It: Practicing Interoception

Based on our own intuition and experience, many of us know that meditation, conscious breathing and mindful bodily movement have the effect of calming an overactive and anxious mind. When we are flustered or upset and stop to take to a deep breath, close our eyes for a moment or stand up and stretch, we feel instantly better.

Are you curious to know why this is? Why do certain behaviors serve to soothe us? You may have guessed the answer relates to our brain and nervous system. Different parts of the brain and nervous system are responsible for performing different functions related to our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Fortunately for us, we are not puppets exclusively controlled by the automatic strings of our brain and spinal chord. We often think of our brain as the executive organ in charge of most all we do; while this is true, there are ways we can consciously pull the strings to turn on specific parts of our brains and nervous systems and disengage from others.

For example, our autonomic nervous system contains our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems performing complimentary functions. Even though these systems are automatic and involuntary, there are things we can do to voluntarily affect them. The sympathetic nervous system aids in our survival through controlling our fight or flight response, gearing us up for intense action; this part of our nervous system engages our stress response. On the other hand, our parasympathetic nervous system brings the body back into balance following a stressful experience, slowing down the heart rate, supporting glandular activity, facilitating digestion and helping our muscles to relax. The way I was taught the difference between the two systems is to remember that sympathetic means fight or flight, and parasympathetic means rest and digest. The most important way we consciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system is through intentional and controlled breathing. If we can slow down and control our breathing, we can override our stress response.

To give an example of turning on different parts of our brain, we can point first to the frontal lobes of the neocortex: these allow us to respond to external stimuli, to think, to analyze and to gauge our place among others through social judgment and conceptual self-evaluation. All of these functions are extremely useful, yet this part of our brain can feel like it's on overdrive at times. Not surprisingly, this is the part of our brain responsible for the distressing thoughts that come with depression and anxiety. We may often feel that we need to shut off our thoughts so we can relax or sleep. At these times, we can switch gears, relying more on two smaller and deeper areas of our brain, the insula and posterior cingulate: these relate more to feelings, both physical and emotional. When we can go deeper into our present experience of physical sensations and emotional or intuitive feelings, we can bypass racing thoughts and find relief from external stress.

When our attention is turned to the outside world and the way we engage with it, we can say our awareness is exteroceptive. When we turn our focus to our immediate physical and internal experience (such as the sensations related to breathing), we can say we have interoceptive awareness. When we meditate, do conscious breath work and engage in a movement practice such as tai chi or yoga, we are increasing our interoceptive awareness--we are practicing interoception. Interoception is related to mindfulness practice, another mind/body tool for reducing stress and anxiety. When we are able to feel, very deeply and keenly, what's happening on the inside of us, we move towards healing mental and physical ailments that show up on the outside. When we can feel, then we can heal.

Some people may find it initially quite difficult to spend quiet, intimate time with themselves engaging these practices. Uncomfortable feelings may surface and ask to be resolved. I have a friend who has told me she always cries in savasana at the end of yoga class and that's how she knows she needs to do it more often. Her self-assessment is very wise. Laughter and tears do sometimes show up in classes I teach, in my own yoga practice and in classes I attend, and I find that the environment adequately supports any such natural reaction. However, many people will prefer to have these deeper experiences on their own in their practice, on a yoga or meditation retreat, or with a trusted and qualified teacher, one-on-one.

These methods of dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma have been scientifically tested and proven, and are currently used to treat veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as other sensitive populations. We can use these methods on ourselves and our loved ones, as good preventative health measures and also avenues for enjoyment.

Meditation, breath work and mindful movement practices proactively support our mental and physical well-being. A little interoceptive awareness brings a much needed balance to our externally focused behaviors, habits and patterns.

If you are interested in reading more about interoception and the brain, check out this article from Scientific American, by Emma Seppala.

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