Interoception and Anxiety

My friend Philip has alerted me to this fascinating presentation by Professor Sarah Garfinkel from Sussex University on YouTube – “interoception and anxiety in autistic adults” –

Professor Garfinkel introduces the term “interoception ” as the ability to be aware your internal body functions and status – e.g. breathing, heartbeat etc. even feelings and emotions; i.e. sensations that are internal to your body.  In her presentation she shows how tests can measure the accuracy of an individual’s interoception .

Now it turns out that those will good interoception are also more likely to experience emotional reactions to situations – almost as if they are more aware of such emotional responses… which fits with having  good interoception .  It has also been demonstrated that folk with poor interoception tend experience less emotional responses and to be more prone to anxiety.

Professor Garfinkel’s research and experiments also demonstrate that those on the autism spectrum tend  (but not always) to have poorer interoception … yet increased anxiety.

So, Professor Garfinkel’s team demonstrated that they could train autistic subjects to increase their interoception (in comparison with a control group) by using exercises or rest to vary their heart rates and to have them focus upon their heart rates.   The research showed that along with better introspection the subjects also reported better emotional regulation – feeling less ambushed by their emotions.

I have written separately about  theory of mind and autism – yet here I want to focus on the link between poor interoception and anxiety – in all, not just those on the autism spectrum – and the good news that interoception can be improved through training leading to less anxiety.

Having watched this lecture, I wonder if mindfulness – where we practice by focusing on the breath and develop an objective awareness of “emotional first wave reactions” – enhances interoception .  When mediating we focus on the breath as it is a simple function taking place within us… so that we are able to learn to avoid a wandering mind and to improve our ability to observe the feelings or thoughts that arising within in us… sounds like interoception ?

It would be interesting to see if training in mindfulness increases interoception – we already know that mindfulness can reduced our proness to anxiety just as well as antianxiety drugs… yet without the side effects.

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