We’ve all heard this philosophical question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
But have you heard the new one, “if you don’t have the words to describe health, can you really feel healthy?”
Ok, I just made up that second one. But it brings up this important health question:
If you don’t know what you’re feeling, and you can’t name it do you really experience it fully?
If you can’t use inner bodily cues to guide you, you tend to rely on external cues, such as mirrors, a particular number on the scale, calorie counting, or what other people say/think.
Using external cues alone to drive body transformation is doomed to fail. Maybe you know many excellent calorie counters who are still unhealthy and overfat.
People who navigate by external cues alone tend to feel anxious, worried about “breaking rules,” freaked out by small blips on the bathroom scale, or prone to every diet fad that comes along. They don’t know what is “good” or “bad” to eat, because all foods feel the same to them — all they know is that they’ve “found themselves” in the potato chip bag again.
These people aren’t stupid or lazy. They’re just unaware of the relationship between their insides and their outsides. As a result they’re cut off from about 90% of the information they need to make smart choices for their own bodies.
Let interoception help solve this problem.
How Interoception Keeps Us Healthy
Interoception is the ability to sense what is going on at the interface of our inner and outer environments, with a view to self-regulation (aka maintaining homeostasis).
In other words, interoception involves:
- being able to sense what’s going on inside;
- being able to sense what’s going on outside, and how that affects the inner experiences and feelings;
- being able to integrate all of these sensations into a “big picture” of “body status”; and
- being able to respond to what’s going on appropriately.
Interoceptive sensations include things like:
- touch — whether pressure or sensual
- muscle tension
- breathlessness or inadequate air
- stomach discomfort (such as heartburn or intestinal tension)
Use Your (Interoception) Words
Dr. Stephen Porges has called interoception “the sixth primary sense.”
As he points out, we don’t have many words or common expressions for interoceptive experiences in English. This can make interoception hard for us to describe.
Other languages have some great ones, though, such as:
- bel hevi (Tok Pisin, Papua New Guinea) — literally, “belly heavy,” or the heavy, sinking feeling of deep sadness
- torschlusspanik (German) — “door shutting panic”, or the sense that life is slamming doors, the room is closing in, and opportunities are running out
- uitbuiken (Dutch) — literally “enjoyment stomach,” which conveys the pleasure of taking one’s time at dinner and the satisfaction of a slowly acquired full belly
- hygge (Danish) — something like the feeling of warmth, coziness, satisfaction, and connectedness you get when you are cuddled up around a roaring fire on a cold day, sharing a big meal with loved ones
(By the way, the German word often used as equivalent to English “emotion” — Gehfül, from fühlen, to feel — makes no distinction between physical or mental feelings.)
Connect with Your Health
Fundamentally, interoception helps us survive.
To know when we are hungry, thirsty, scared, cold, sensing a threat, etc. is essential information. Interoception drives us to act.
People without strong interoception nor verbal skills will have trouble knowing and saying what they feel. And they can have trouble acting in their own best interests.
You might notice some friends aren’t very good at sensing into what muscles they use during exercise, or when they’re “satisfied” rather than “stuffed”. Or maybe they can’t describe exactly what they’re experiencing physically, other than a mumbled, “I dunno… I feel OK, I guess.”
These people in particular are more likely to struggle with nutrition and exercise habits. They’re more likely to have disordered eating (and other problem behaviors) too.
If you don’t know what you’re feeling, and you can’t name it, then in a sense, you don’t really experience it fully.
Awareness = Change
So short of traveling the world acquiring the ability to speak these different languages that describe interoception what can you do to practice good nutrition and feel healthy? The answer is simple.
But do “nothing” with a purpose. Practice awareness, or mindfulness, which is simply paying attention to what is happening right now.
What else are you doing right now?
What else are you experiencing right now?
The purpose of mindfulness is to bring things to our conscious awareness, because the process of becoming aware transforms our reality.
Take a moment to observe. That purposeful observation is awareness. Hint, to work best, awareness should be nonjudgmental. You’re just:
When you enhance your own mindfulness, or “body knowledge,” and become more aware of what’s happening in your body, you will be better able to self-regulate, guide yourself through the process of acquiring nutritional skills, and sense when things are getting off track.