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For Valentine's Day, Learn Your Mind-Body's Love Language

Interoception is how the mind and body communicate about our internal states.


KEY POINTS

  • Interoception is how we understand our mind-body signals and regulate emotional and physical states.

  • The mind-body interaction is bi-directional. Our physical cues impact our emotional state and vice versa.

  • Learning what your body and mind are communicating can promote health, self-efficacy, and resilience.




Perhaps you've heard about "love languages," the particular ways that people receive and express love (i.e. gifts, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service and physical touch). While this intuitive construct relates to interpersonal relationships, it can be borrowed to explain the reciprocal communication inherent in your body-mind relationship.


You are a highly complex organism imbued with interrelated, dynamic processes that work continuously to ensure harmony, or homeostasis, in your body’s internal environment while simultaneously adjusting to environmental changes outside your body’s system. These feedback loops endeavor to maintain essential stability, always striving to bring the body back to a balanced state through somatic actions such as thermoregulation, blood pressure, heart rate, fluid balance, oxygen tension, blood pH and circadian rhythms.


Your body and mind are yoked, together experiencing every sensory and perceptual event that occurs throughout your lifetime. This miraculous mind-body interaction is bi-directional. Our mental state influences our physical health and physical sensations inform our thoughts and mood. For example, intimacy and feeling happy boosts the immune system, improves sleep and reduces stress, inflammation and pain. Conversely, chronic psychological distress can disrupt digestion, sleep, concentration and immune processes and cause headaches, pain, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.


All of life is filtered through the body and the mind. Learning how to process the constant flow of information efficiently, and how to respond robustly, can help you build a greater sense of self-efficacy and empowerment. In turn, higher levels of self-efficacy lead to improved resilience, that is, a greater capacity for coping with distress, disappointment and rejection.


Interoception is the name given to the perception of sensations in our bodies and minds. Some of these workings are conscious processes (e.g. awareness of the need to sleep, pee or drink water); others are unconscious (e.g. glucose regulation). A third type of interoception has to do with how the body and mind work together to sense and respond to the constant flow of events that occur every second of every day.


You can imagine a cascade where body signals are delivered, interpreted by the mind, and synthesized so that information can allow for a prediction or forecast about what may happen next. A person may have a more or less developed interoceptive awareness, or ability to accurately listen to signals. Interoceptive awareness may be especially problematic for those who have experienced severe trauma or pain and have ceased to trust their bodily cues.

In day-to-day life, the mind and body are constantly speaking to you, conveying needs, desires and dangers. For many reasons, this information may be ignored, minimized or misinterpreted. We have busy lives. Being present and mindful can be tough. It is especially easy to deny things we are afraid of, or try to push through, or conquer events like sickness, emotional distress or uncertainty. While this is understandable, it can be misguided. Pushing through or ignoring symptoms, fatigue, trauma and other issues we wish were not there does not mean they disappear. Wishing does not make it so. In fact, just the opposite is true.


You can learn to pay better attention to your mind-body processes and more objectively respond to what is being communicated. The trick is to become more receptive to your body’s communications and curious about what they imply so that you are listening from an accepting and pragmatic stance.


Everyone’s system is different. When hungry, for example, some people will feel cranky, some people will feel sad, and for some, the experience is primarily physical such as becoming light-headed or shaky. These signals are like love letters from your body-mind, letting you know that your blood sugar has dropped, hormones have been released and you need to eat. Learning how your body and mind communicate information can help you develop healthier responses and make better choices.


We often respond to symptoms or emotions as inconveniences to be gotten rid of; or we simply respond in a habitual way, without much thought at all. The introduction of an interim step, awareness with reflection, can improve your interoceptive awareness and significantly improve the mind-body relationship. By improving your capacity to identify, access and appraise internal bodily signals you are learning your body-mind’s "love language," that is, how it is working to take care of you. The very symptoms you may tend to ignore or dismiss are actually treasure troves of information that can guide you to greater awareness, health and self-love.


Your body is always trying to take care of you. For example, sometimes symptoms are felt physically. Let’s say you are in a car accident where you are wounded. This event causes pain and invokes a stress response as well. If you ignore the physical pain, you may not get the care you really need. If you interpret the stress as indicative of poor coping, you may introduce unhelpful emotions such as shame into the situation. The stress response is a natural part of your body-mind’s response to pain. It ensures that you are aware of the event’s urgency so that you will give it the attention it needs. It is a love note.


Sometimes pain is felt more emotionally. Let’s consider the same situation, but this time after you have healed from your injuries. Perhaps the next time you attempt to drive a car, subsequent to the accident, you experience anxiety. Again, this acute anxiety can not automatically be understood as poor coping. Rather, your body is likely taking care of you by helping you remember the risks of driving and reminding you to learn from a previous event, in order to make good judgements in the future. Anxiety can be extraordinarily helpful, when you listen to it as your mind-body’s love language.


Leaning into what your body-mind is communicating allows you to become more adept at accurately evaluating internal information and responding in healthier and more nuanced ways. Improving interoceptive awareness, or understanding your body-mind’s love language, is key for understanding and responding to thoughts, body sensations and emotional expressions.


References

Price, C.J. & Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Front Psychol, 9, 798. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798

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