How Trauma Affects Our Eighth Sense: Interoception

Trauma can change the accuracy of your eighth sense: interoception. This is your ability to notice and understand your internal sensations. Interoception is key to regulating the nervous system following chronic and traumatic stress.

The surge of evidence on interoception points to the vagus nerve’s role as the main pathway for communicating information on the internal state of the body to the brain. The most important region affected is the insula. Sensations of a racing heart or butterflies in your stomach are a foundation for your emotions and your physiology.

Previous life circumstances may change your interoceptive accuracy. An adaption to traumatic stress is to dissociate from sensations and block out internal cues from awareness. There may be less activity in the insula and a feeling of numbness. In research, people with depression often have less interoceptive awareness. The reduced ability to feel their bodily signals may lie behind their sense of exhaustion, disconnection, and emotional numbness – the sense that they can’t feel anything at all.

On the other hand, anxiety may make you attentive to interoceptive signals, but you may not read them as accurately. A small fluctuation in your heart rate may be misread by the insula as a much bigger danger signal than it is, causing anxiety. This may lead to sensations becoming overwhelming. Research shows following trauma there can be increased connectivity between the insula and several regions of the fear circuitry in the brain, and this can amplify your sense of panic.

Both states can create a feeling of inner homelessness. You often leave your body and the present moment, swept up in survival states and dysregulation. This can make it very difficult to feel comfortable in our body.

Growing research has shown interoception accuracy is not only crucial for your physical health but also for memory, decision-making, emotional processing, social interactions, body ownership and a sense of self. It’s intrinsically tied to your sense of agency. Interoception is a sensory system that you can train, just like you can re-train other systems to improve balance.

You can influence the two-way communication between the vagus nerve and the insula. This is like improving the phone signal between the body and the brain. The greater accuracy you have for tuning into sensations and understanding your physiology, the greater agency you have in shaping your life. This allows you to feel in charge of your body, your feelings and yourself. Interoceptive awareness is the key to regulating the nervous system following chronic and traumatic stress. Re-training interoception helps you develop greater accuracy at reading body signals in the present moment, rather than from the past. Uncoupling sensations from a story that something terrible is going to happen, calms the brain’s fear circuitry, regulates the nervous system & reduces anxiety.

You can also change under-activity in the insula so you don’t feel numb, flat and disconnected from life whenever you’re facing challenges. Re-training interoception means you can stop swinging up to the highs of anxiety and agitation, and down to the lows of burnout and shutdown.

You get a balanced, accurate input of what’s happening in the present moment, and you can use these signals to guide you, rather than confuse and overwhelm you. It allows you to develop trust and confidence in yourself. As you improve this skill for your inner world, your outer life will flourish. Being comfortable and at home in your body is something that you can learn.








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We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we share our work, the Arakwal of the Bundjalung, and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Always was, always will be.