Children’s Hidden 8th Sense - Interoception
“Butterflies in your tummy.”
“Head feels like it may explode.”
“Arms feel like lead weights.”
Interoception is our hidden “secret 8th sense”. In very simple terms, it is our sense that allows us to answer the question “How do I feel?” at any one moment. It does this by gathering information from our different body parts (joints, organs and muscles) and interpreting the information from these systems to determine how those body parts feel.
Interoception enables our bodies to stay in their optimal state, homeostasis, by indicating what our bodies need e.g. if your stomach is rumbling you may need to eat something, throat dry you may need to have a drink, if you are shivering you may want to put something warm on.
Interoception and feelings
Our feelings are linked to actual physical sensations in our bodies. For example, if you are worried, you may feel sick in your stomach. If you are excited, you may feel like you have butterflies in your stomach. When you are angry, your heart beats faster and your breathing may become fast and shallow. Our interoception system is the basis for our physical and emotional regulation and it therefore has large influence over many aspects of our lives such as self-regulation, social thinking, flexible thinking, problem-solving and the development of social skills.
An unreliable interoceptive system:
Some of us may have difficulty in understanding how to react to the information that our body is sending us. We may not feel the information, or we may feel it too little or too much and may misinterpret our bodies’ signals. Our feelings can become mixed up and confused as we misinterpret the information not only from our bodies, but from our surrounding environment and the situation at hand. Remember that when we or our children react negatively to a situation, it may be due to a misinterpretation of our bodies’ signals and not “bad behavior”. E.g. when entering a room, a child may begin to feel anxious and complain of a sore tummy. If they are not able to self-regulate and we are not aware of the stomach pain being linked to anxiety, they may become more dysregulated, triggering her fight or flight response with them running away to hide or refusing to leave their parents’ side. It is so important to remember that this is not a child behaving badly, but one who is dysregulated and we need to remember that behavior is a form of communication. Please see below for some fun facts taken from The Pocket OT (https://www.pocketot.com/5-facts-about-interoception/)
Interoception affects toileting. Many children with special needs and sensory difficulties have trouble with bowel movements. My own children needed diapers long after most of our friend’s children. Regulation monitors our body and responses to our surroundings. When our bladder is full, we use the toilet. If we have intestinal cramping, we find the restroom. Many people do not feel these urges. They may feel they are too late or not at all. Bedwetting, frequent accidents, and holding stool/constipation are common when children struggle with interoceptive awareness.
Emotional awareness is also interoception. Think about your body when you are stressed. Your heart beats fast, your breathing is shallow and fast, you may feel stomach pain or cramping, and your cheeks may get red. Emotions are ‘felt’ in your body. We’ve all heard about children who get a tummy ache when it’s time to go to school. They may feel anxiety or worry and it manifests in the stomach. Your child is no different. They may feel emotions in their bodies and if they cannot tell you verbally, they may act out. Here’s another example. When you do not eat, you may feel cranky.
Sensory activity diets or activities designed for regulating sensory often help with interoceptive awareness. Just like the other senses, interoception can improve! Practice understanding emotions and feelings is so helpful to our children and adults. Also, naming feelings when they occur can be wonderful. For example, when a child asks for a drink of water say, “You are feeling thirsty.” Also, when they are happy, ask them to stop and notice the way their bodies feel. Are they smiling? Do they feel comfortable? How do they know?