How in tune are you with your body? Do you recognize when you require water? Food? A good night of sleep? Or do you get so wrapped up in the task at hand that you forget to eat? By the time you recognize that hunger, you may feel sick to your stomach and don’t have a desire to eat. Or maybe it isn’t until you finally sit down after a long day that you realize you’re exhausted and cannot keep your eyes open. These are examples of times when your mind and body are not connected, and today I’m going to explain why it’s essential to have a secure and accurate mind and body connection and how weighted blankets can help build a more reliable mind and body connection.
Why Do I need a Mind and Body Connection
The mind and body connection is more than just an abstract concept that we read about in textbooks or associate with secular practices. There’s an actual term that encompasses and describes the mind and body connection, and it’s called interoception. We all have nerve receptors throughout our body, including in our organs, joints, and muscular system, and these are part of the nervous system. Our nervous system regularly feeds information about our body to our mind both consciously and unconsciously, which allows us to interpret the information and integrate it into our actions to maintain homeostasis. For example, there are receptors in your stomach that let your brain know you require food, which will help you respond by eating.
Interoception is also linked to our emotions, as our mind is typically familiar with physiological sensations that are related to specific emotions. For example, think about your most recent heartbreak. Even if it was 10 – 20 years ago, it’s a physical feeling that’s hard to forget. When you and a partner break up, you can feel the pain in your heart and feel a sense of discomfort in your throat, which is commonly described as being choked up. These physical sensations related to the emotions we feel provides evidence that emotions have a mind and body component — interoception.
Some people are more in tune with how their body responds to emotions than others, and some peoples’ bodies will respond without their mind registering the emotion immediately. Have you ever woken up and felt a tightness in your stomach, and it took a few moments of thinking about that sensation before you recognized that you’re experiencing anxiety over an event? These are examples of dysfunctional interoception.
Problems with interoception arise when there are inaccuracies in the mind and body connection. Interoception is complicated, but in sum, the ideal is to be in a state of homeostasis where awareness and connection are present, but there is not too much awareness or a complete absence of awareness. Those who are hyper-aware may experience an increase in anxiety when they notice any small change in their body or the opposite where their body may react quickly to any worrying thought. If a person senses their heart rate increasing –even a small bit –this may trigger anxiety. The other side of this spectrum is the lack of awareness. Someone unaware of their hunger because they aren’t in tune with their body’s signals may struggle with depression or an eating disorder.
Along with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, it is thought that (some) autism symptoms and fatigue are fueled by or a result of dysfunctional interoception. With autism, hyperawareness will again cause anxiety; this is linked to sensory issues. People with autism who cannot tolerate the smallest grain of sand in their shoes are hyper-aware and thus will experience anxiety from the discomfort. Other conditions thought to be related to interoception dysfunction can be found in the chart below.
How Connected is your Mind and Body?
I invite you to take a moment and gauge your level of interoception. This experiment works best if you have a heart-rate tracking device such as a FitBit or Apple watch. However, if you don’t have a smartwatch, then you can do this activity with a partner. Set a timer for 60 seconds and then tune in to your body, specifically your heart rate. Count how many times you can feel your heartbeat in those 60 seconds (if you are using a partner, have them feel your pulse and count while you count).
Once the 60 seconds is up, check your watch to see what your heart rate was in those 60 seconds. Were you close to that number? This experiment provides information on one aspect of interoception, so these results will not gauge your overall level of the mind and body connection, but it’s a good start. If the number you counted was close to that displayed on your device, then you are likely more in tune with your body, but if the number was way off, then you may have some work to do to build up that mind and body connection.
How do I Improve your Mind and Body Connection?
For those of you who have identified interoception as a problem area in your life, whether it be after reading up until this point or after you took the assessment, I have good news for you. Developing homeostatic interoception is possible! Interoception is a relatively new area of research, so most of the literature on how to improve interoception is still novel. However, an abundance of research has focused on mindfulness meditation techniques as a primary tactic. This makes sense; the whole premise of mindfulness is noticing, tuning in to your breath, and being present.
Research has found that over time as one practices mindfulness meditation interventions, they will develop the trait of mindfulness, meaning they are more aware and present naturally, even while not directly practicing mindfulness meditation.
Newer research has looked at a potential combination strategy of mindfulness and touch as a way to improve interoception. Touch therapy and mindfulness as isolated treatment modalities would only target either top-down or bottom-up processes in the body — both are needed for interoception to be improved. The other rationale for combining these two treatments is that interoception is a bidirectional process and including both treatment approaches would provide optimal improvement.
Though these rationales stem from a study that proposes manual therapies in conjuncture with mindfulness meditation, new research has found that deep touch pressure does have a positive impact on interoceptive accuracy. I believe that future research will expand on deep pressure (i.e., weighted blankets) and mindfulness more as a DIY method of building interoception at home–especially in times like these where a pandemic prevents face to face contact.
When we break the components of mindfulness meditation and weighted blanket use down to their most simple premise, it becomes clear how they can improve interoception. Mindfulness is quite literally the practice of noticing and being present, and most practices encourage a focus on the breath and how the body reacts to each breath. Interoception accuracy is commonly measured by sensing and reporting one’s own heart rate. You probably feel your heart rate a lot more clearly when you are experiencing anxiety because your heart feels like it is beating out of your chest!
There is research to suggest that weighted blanket use will diminish the physiological effects of anxiety; thus, your heart rate will be slower and harder to detect. This challenge is good, though! Sitting and trying to feel your heart rate in a relaxed state is how you build interoception.
However, as a final note, those of you who did well on the experiment described above, be careful with how often you practice tuning into your heart rate. Too much of a good thing is true here. If you constantly check in to feel your heart rate, then you will train your brain to be more aware of any minor shifts in heart rate, which subsequently can create chronic anxiety. Occasional brief check-ins are okay, just don’t obsess over sensing your heart rate, but that’s true in all cases!