Interoception: A Mindfulness Practice for Stress


A specific form of mindfulness that is useful for improving both physical health and managing stress is called interoception. Interoception, also referred to as interoceptive awareness, is simply focusing your attention on your internal physical states, or bodily functions. For example, when you pay attention to your heart rate, or your natural respiratory rate, or the hunger pangs you get in your gut when you need some food, you are practicing interoception. 

The body is constantly sending signals to the brain, and when we pay close attention to these signals through interoception, we can better manage or react to these signals. This is particularly useful in stressful situations. 

During the stress response, our heart rate increases, respiratory rate increases, and muscles tighten. These all occur unconsciously, naturally and within a matter of seconds. If we take notice of this when it is first occurs, we can take control of our breathing, for example, and help slow the progression of the response or prevent it from lasting longer than it should. 

If we are in tune with our bodies, we can take a few, slow, deep breaths or remove ourselves from the stressful situation immediately after we get worked up. The greater interoceptive awareness we have, the greater or sooner the action we can take.

Other Uses For Interoception

The way to develop better interoception is to simply just practice it. Being more mindful and paying more attention to how we are physically feeling throughout the day will help strengthen those interoceptive muscles, so to speak. 

This doesn’t apply only to stress, of course. If you practice interoception while exercising, you can better sense how hard to push during the workout. Or you can decide when to increase or decrease force or repetition, and when you need to take a break. And you can actually strengthen your muscles more efficiently. 

So, listen to your body and feel the biological sensations when you’re performing any health-related activities. This can be anything from meditation and mindfulness to exercise and eating. When you are exercising, feel your heart rate and respiratory rate; notice your body temperature and levels of perspiration. When you are eating, pay attention to how full your stomach is so you can prevent overeating. When you are in a stress response, note the tension in your body, your pounding heart, your heavier breathing. Take action to better manage the response by using greater interoceptive awareness. 

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