Research shows that people who accurately observe and interpret bodily signals are more resilient to stress.
Interoception refers to the capacity to accurately detect and interpret bodily cues. Some of these cues are obvious, such as when you accidentally touch a hot surface. But interoception also involves being aware of the body’s more subtle signals. Research
suggests that the more sensitive you are to those signs, the better your ability to cope effectively with stress may be.
Interoception allows us to respond to, and learn from the myriad signals about our current state that the body sends to the brain. According to a study published in Biological Psychology, those with poor interoceptive awareness may be less able to adapt to stressful situations. Yoga, which emphasizes the integration of mind and body, may help to cultivate greater interoceptive ability and increase stress resilience.
The study examined how participants’ brains responded to stress when exposed to aversive sensations. Forty-six adults were divided into either a high, medium or low resilience group based self-reports of their ability to cope with stress and adversity. Group participants were matched for age, education and gender.
People with current drug or alcohol dependence, history of brain injury, current use of psychoactive drugs or substances that affect a hemodynamic response, neurological or severe psychiatric disorders or other factors preventing them from functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI) assessment were excluded from the study.
During a laboratory visit, individuals completed questionnaires regarding their interoceptive awareness and responsiveness to bodily sensations. They were then fitted with a nose clip and asked to breathe into a mouthpiece attached to an apparatus that elicited respiratory stress, or “breathing load”.
Participants then performed a simple attention task that required pressing either a left or right arrow button in response to an arrow presented on a screen. During this task they were also given cues as to when they might anticipate a breathing load to assess their anticipatory reaction to physiological stress. Neural responses were recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Results showed that participants in the low resilience group reported decreased interoceptive awareness compared to those who endorsed medium or high resilience to stress. Brain scans showed that low resilience individuals also demonstrated greater activation in brain regions including the insula and thalamus when anticipating stress compared to highly resilient participants. This suggests that those with poor interoception have difficulty processing stressful information.
The study’s authors suggest that a decreased awareness of bodily signals (interoceptive awareness) may leave individuals with lower levels of resilience and greater susceptibility to stress due to a limited capacity to accurately monitor bodily states or predict future needs. This means that adults with attenuated body awareness may be more likely to interpret life events as stressful and less able to enact effective coping strategies.
This research suggests that the modulation of brain systems that process interoceptive information may be necessary to effectively manage life stress. What’s more, individuals with low interoceptive capacity may benefit from stress reduction interventions that involve yoga or other mindfulness-based movement that emphasizes body awareness.
Movement-based mindfulness practices including yoga, tai chi and Qi gong draw attention to the mind-body relationship through the conscious integration of awareness, breath and movement.
These tools may help to strengthen interoceptive capability by cultivating greater sensitivity to the link between bodily sensation and cognitive and affective expression and thus enhance one’s ability to recognize, interpret and effectively response to stress-related bodily cues.