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Until a couple of years ago, I had never heard about interoception. When I attended a continuing education class about behavior and sensory processing, interoception was mentioned. It intrigued me and I decided to research more. 

Interoception is the awareness of bodily sensations. It is the sense of knowing the internal condition of your body. I explain what the 8th sensory system is and how it works below.

Interoception Table of Contents

  • What are the 8 senses?
  • What is Interoception?
  • A simple explanation of Interoception
  • Hyper-Responsive and Hypo-Responsive Interoception Reactions
  • What Interoception Sensitivities to look for 
  • Interoception and Self-Regulation Skills
  • Activity Strategies for Interoception Sensitivity
  • Free Handout on Interoception and the 8 Senses

What are the 8 senses?

Before we get started on discussing Interception, I want to give a brief review of all the sensory systems.

The sensory system is part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. The sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception.

What are the 8 senses?

Most people learn about the 5 common senses, but not everyone knows there are really 8. I didn’t even realize there were 8 until a few years ago. I knew there were 7, but the 8th one surprised me.

So what are they?

  • Tactile/Touch
  • Auditory/Hearing
  • Visual/Sight
  • Gustatory/Taste
  • Olfactory/Smell
  • Proprioception
  • Vestibular
  • Interoception

If you would like more basic information on all 8 sensory systems, you can check out my post on all 8 senses of the sensory system here. I also have a free 9-day e-mail series on sensory processing that gives you one-page printables for each system throughout the series.

What is Interoception?

Interoception is the sense of knowing what is going on INSIDE our bodies.

Things such as feeling:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Tired
  • Feeling pain
  • Temperature (Feeling hot or cold etc)
  • Needing to use the bathroom
  • Emotional regulation and moods 
  • Any other internal sensations

A simple explanation of Interoception

Don’t worry, I’m not getting too technical here.

We’ve already learned that interoception is internal body sensations.

Your body is filled with sensory receptors that tell you where your body parts are. These proprioceptive receptors are located in your muscles and joints. This helps you to understand what is going on around you and how your body moves within that environment.

Something similar goes on with Interoceptive input, except that the interoception receptors are inside your body’s organs and skin. All of these receptors report to your brain with information about what is going on INSIDE your body.

This all helps to regulate your body functions such as: 

  • Feeling hungry or thirsty
  • How fast or slow your heart is beating (heart rate)
  • Digestion 
  • Needing to use the toilet (bladder feeling full etc) 
  • Body temperature regulation 
  • Emotional regulation and moods 

A good example of this is a commercial by Snickers®. The commercial portrays a character who is “hangry” or angry because they are hungry. Often times we have an EMOTIONAL response to what we are feeling inside our bodies. Some people may become angry or moody when they are hungry. When you begin to feel this way, most of the time you know you need to get something to eat and your mood improves.

Imagine you have to go to the bathroom but you can’t find a place to go. You most likely become anxious, frantically looking for the nearest options out of fear that you may not make it in time. You may notice your heart beating faster, your palms sweating, or breathing heavier until you find relief! 

You can thank your interoception system for all these feelings and reactions to what is going on inside.

Hyper-Responsive and Hypo-Responsive Interoception Reactions

Just like the other 7 sensory systems, children can be hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive to interoceptive sensory input.

Hyper-responsive, also known as over-responsive or hypersensitive means a child is extremely sensitive to this input. The slightest sensation of hunger, thirst, or bathroom needs can cause them to be extremely anxious. The slightest change in temperature or even hearing their own heartbeat can be extremely distracting. Some of the sensations they feel could even be extremely painful.

Children who are hypersensitive to interoception input may be extremely distracted by sensations such as hunger or having to use the bathroom. In some cases, these sensations can even be painful. They may have trouble maintaining focus on a task because they are distracted by what is going on inside their body.

Hypo-responsive, also known as under-responsive or hypo-sensitive means a child often needs a large amount of input in order to recognize the type of sensory information their brain is receiving. This means they may not realize the need to use the restroom, or they may not realize they are hungry until they are completely starving. And the same with feeling thirsty. They might not realize they are in pain or the sensation of pain feels completely different to them, like a tickle.

Children who are hypo-sensitive to interoception input may not even be aware of the cues their body is giving them to the sensations inside their body. They simply aren’t getting enough information to process what is going on.

This means they may not feel when they need to go to the bathroom, resulting in accidents or difficulty with potty training.

They may never feel full after a meal or they may never feel hungry. They may not respond to pain the same way as you and I might. A broken bone may not even phase them. Or the slightest scratch or cut may cause extreme pain and anxiety.

All of these can result in safety issues and difficulty functioning in a typical environment.

What Interoception Sensitivities to look for 

Interoception sensitivities may affect those who have been diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder), Anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and even obesity.

Children who are experiencing sensory processing challenges have trouble making sense of the information that their brain is receiving. They may not be able to tell when they feel pain or when their bladder is full. A common sensation such as an itch may feel extremely painful, or pain may feel like tickling.

Here is an easy explanation of interoceptive sensitivities to look for: 

  • Difficulty with toileting (bed wetting and accidents)
  • Unable to track hydration or food intake (never feel thirsty or hungry. Or may always feel thirsty or hungry)
  • Difficulty in recognizing and communicating internal body states or sensations (feeling hot/cold, pain, etc)
  • Difficulty regulating emotions and feelings (not feeling they are angry before they verbally or physically lash out)
  • Distracted by internal sensory input such as hearing their heartbeat
  • Unable to tell how loud their voice is in an environment. May use sound to cover up unwanted sensory stimuli

Interoception and Self-Regulation Skills

Interoception difficulties can also make self-regulation a challenge. When you are able to tell that you’re thirsty, you know to get a drink. When you can feel that your bladder is full, you know to use the bathroom. When you feel a sense of frustration, you know to explain what’s troubling you.

Some children with interoception difficulties, can’t regulate certain responses. Some kids may experience bedwetting. Or they may not know why they’re feeling off and can have meltdowns. Kids who struggle with these things may not be able to identify the real source of their discomfort.

Those who struggle with interoception input can also have difficulties with “feeling” emotion. They may not be as aware or tuned in to their body’s cues that can help to interpret that emotion. This makes it difficult for them to identify emotions. For example, a child may not “feel” fear because he doesn’t recognize that his muscles are tense, his breathing is shallow and his heart is racing.

Activity Strategies for Interoception Sensitivity

More research needs to be done in order to find more evidence-based activities that target interoceptive input. However, here are a few ideas that are based on current thought and research. 

– Mindfulness activities and meditation (encourages children to be more aware of what is going on inside their bodies)

– Yoga for kids

– Heavy work activities

– Alerting activities

– Creating a sensory diet to address sensitivities (make sure to work with a licensed Occupational therapist who is familiar with sensory processing)

– Repetitive and rhythmic vestibular input (such as swinging, rocking, etc)

– Visual prompts, cues, or communication devices that encourage children to identify body functions and feelings

– Verbally labeling emotions as we see them and also responding appropriately to encourage functional responses.

– Help your child to communicate wants, needs, emotions, and feelings by first recognizing them and then communicating them appropriately (social stories could be helpful for this).

You can also check out my 10 Interoception Activities for Kids post here.

Free Handout on Interoception and the 8 Senses

I have a free handout on interoception, as well as the other 7 sensory systems available below.

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Sensory Processing Explained: A Complete Guide for Parents and Educators by Sharla Kostelyk and Heather Greutman, COTA

Interoception: How I Feel: Sensing My World from the Inside Out by Dr. Cara Koscinski, OTD, MOT, OTR/L.

You May Also Like: 

  • What is Interoceptive Awareness?
  • Calm Down Toolkit for Kids
  • The Secret Sensory Culprit that Makes Reading and Writing Challenging for Your Child
  • Sensory Processing and the Teenage Years

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