Interoceptive awareness: How to use your powerful sixth sense to stop food stress
Cravings, obsessive food thoughts and emotional eating are stressful. But what if these frustrating experiences are actually your ticket to unlocking your body's secret language to finally stop stressing over food. This language is called interoceptive awareness and with it you can turn these messy, frustrating and confusing experiences into powerful knowledge to help you stop stressing over food.
What is interoceptive awareness
Interoceptive awareness is your ability to feel and consciously understand the physical sensations you feel in your body. These sensations are the language your body uses to communicate your psychological and biological needs. We are all born with an ability to innately understand the language our body uses, although, common practices such as dieting and weight loss pursuits can weaken your trust and understanding of this language. This leaves you relying on external messages or diet plans to care for yourself.
Improving your interoceptive awareness will empower you to use your own body as a guide to meet your nutrition and self care needs without the need for stressful diets and ever-changing food rules. By improving your communication and trust, food decisions will come naturally and feel good rather than a constant fight between your body and your mind.
How interoceptive awareness improves your health
Our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to survive - and this means being able to guide us to meet our needs. Until recently, we never had diets, plans or guidelines to tell us how to eat, when to sleep or how often to move but instead we relied on our body’s communication to guide us.
In our culture, many of us do not value, let alone trust, our body’s sensations, instead opting for external rules such as diets and plans to guide our self care practices. The problem with using external rules is we all have very different needs to best support our bodies. Even individually, on a day to day basis, we need different nourishment.
No one else can ever know what is best for your body in each moment.
When we rely largely on external messages, we are unable to provide individualised self care so our bodies will not receive their optimal nourishment. Additionally, we create confusion between body and mind, presenting a threat to getting our basic needs met and triggering increased stress hormones. When our body is focused on seeking it’s basic needs, we will have less ability to engage in more rewarding areas of life.
Greater interoceptive awareness leads to reduced stress, improved body image and a higher quality of life. Interoceptive awareness is your superpower to understanding exactly what you need, to not only survive, but also thrive.
Harnessing your interoceptive awareness
Your interoceptive awareness will guide you to meet your most basic needs such as urinating, movement and rest, hunger and fullness as well as providing a felt sense of all your emotions. Every emotion is experienced through unique sensations within your own body. In this way, interoceptive awareness is your superpower to meeting your more complex needs as well.
To explore what it feels like, let’s consider having a full bladder, an interoceptive awareness most of us are familiar with. We might feel a tightening sensation in the bladder area and perhaps this becomes lower down or even painful as the bladder becomes more distended. Feeling this sensation and understanding what it means is interoceptive sensitivity. To be able to get our needs met, we need to then trust that this message is accurate and be in a situation we can respond, which is called interoceptive responsiveness.
Now imagine a time you need to pee but there is no access to a bathroom. It is likely your thoughts all start to turn to controlling the urge and finding a bathroom, it feels difficult to focus on other thoughts or feelings.
Let's now replace a full bladder with the sensations for hunger, an interoceptive awareness many of us have lost attunement due to a reliance on diets and external rules. We receive early messages for hunger but may not feel or recognise the sensations until they become extreme and ravenous. When we do feel hunger, we may doubt it, opting to trust external rules instead. In this case, your body is communicating a need for food but it is not getting access to this. If this continues, your hunger will increase until it is urgent and ravenous with obsessive food thoughts and cravings, making it difficult to focus on anything else.
There is a common fear that if we eat when we are hungry, we will not stop eating. When we are used to ignoring our hunger and feeling the extreme, ravenous hunger with our thoughts being highly focused on food, it is no wonder we doubt our ability to nourish ourselves without rules. But when we develop a trusting relationship with our body’s messages, we will feel much more relaxed around food. In the end, our body seeks to feel comfortable but firstly needs to feel safe.
Improving your interoceptive awareness
Interoceptive awareness is feeling connected with your internal sensations, it’s an inside job. Using external rules such as diets or lifestyle plans does not help you to connect with your body. Improving your interoceptive awareness requires you to not only be able to feel and interpret these sensations (known as interoceptive sensitivity) but also to be able to trust and respond to the messages (known as interoceptive responsiveness).
To improve your interoceptive awareness, the intuitive eating framework is a powerful tool to guide you. Although focused on eating, becoming an intuitive eating improves not only your relationship with food but also your body image and emotional regulation - because they are all connected! Intuitive eaters have higher levels of overall interoceptive awareness which is not surprising as interoceptive awareness is the backbone of intuiting eating.
The foundation of intuitive eating is interoceptive awareness with all 10 principles of intuitive eating focused on either improving interoceptive awareness or removing obstacles to interoceptive awareness.
Unlike a diet, whereby you are guided to eat based on only external knowledge of the nutrients in food, with intuitive eating you develop internal connection with your body to be your number 1 guide and food knowledge is there to support you. It empowers you to reconnect with your innate signals for eating and allowing your eating to come naturally.
We don’t eat in isolation. Food and the experience of eating plays a role in emotional regulation, satisfaction and pleasure, social connection, celebration and comfort. This is why improving our interoceptive awareness is essential to healthy eating and reducing stress towards food.
How to improve your interoceptive awareness to reduce food stress
It is possible to improve your interoceptive awareness even if you have spent years feeling disconnected from your body. Here’s 3 steps to support your mind-body connection and make food a less stressful experience.
1. Ditch dieting.
Dieting stops you from listening to what and how much your body really needs in the moment. In then creates stress when we feel hunger signals over what the food rules allow. The most important first step is to stop following someone else's food rules and opt to listen to your own body.
2. Tune in with curiosity.
Curiosity gives you the power to learn about yourself and the underlying drives for your eating behaviours. Getting curious means removing judgement and guilt toward an experience and instead considering the biological and psychological reasons you experienced uncomfortable eating. The next time you feel cravings or heightened emotions, get curious about what your body is communicating.
3. Eat when you are hungry
It doesn't matter if your last meal was 30 minutes ago or 4 hours ago, if you are hungry, you probably need more food. If you unsure, the best approach while learning is to try eating and see how it feels. If you feel there might be a different sensation you are mixing up with hunger, you can explore that too but first your body needs to know it will get food when needed.
Find a certified intuitive eating counsellor to help you reconnect
Intuitive eating supports you to reconnect with your body to guide your eating. Certified counsellors are trained in supporting you to remove obstacles such as unhelpful food beliefs and hurtful body thoughts while reconnecting with your unique sensations to guide your eating and emotion regulation. Having professional support is an invaluable tool to support your journey.
Get professional support to stop feeling stressed around food - learn how here!
Ricciardelli, B.L. (2016). A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women.
Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch (2020). Intuitive Eating 4th Edition, St Martins Publishing Group.
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