Interoceptive awareness: Using your powerful sixth sense to stop feeling stressed about food
Interoceptive awareness is your ability to interpret physical sensations that arise from within your own body. These sensations are the language your body uses to communicate your psychological and biological needs. Although, common practices such as dieting and weight loss pursuits can weaken your communication between body and mind, leaving you relying on external rules 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. By improving your communication and trust, food decisions will feel natural and caring 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.
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.
Interoceptive awareness is your superpower to understanding exactly what you need, to not only survive, but also thrive. And when you develop this powerful connection with your body, nourishing your body will become peaceful and even pleasurable.
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, so it will turn it’s thoughts to eating, 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.
Reclaiming your superpower
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).
Intuitive eating is a powerful framework used to guide us back to working with our bodies to guide our eating and self care as well as emotion regulation. 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.
Eating is a complex interplay of instinct (hunger and fullness cues), emotion (pleasure, satisfaction and social connection) as well rational thought toward food (such as knowing the nutrients in food). Unlike a diet, whereby we are guided to eat based on only external knowledge of the nutrients in food, intuitive eating works to develop internal connection with our bodies to guide our eating while using our knowledge of nutrition to support us. It empowers us to understand and work with our bodies and allow our eating to be as flexible as our need for nutrients and satisfaction are.
The research shows intuitive eaters have higher levels of interoceptive awareness which is not surprising as the principles all work to support our connection with our bodies. However intuitive eaters also have a greater variety of foods eaten, greater proactive coping tools, greater psychological hardiness and lower levels of self-silencing - suppressing our own thoughts, feelings and needs. This is not surprising since interoceptive awareness supports us much beyond our hunger cues.
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. 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. You can delve into your curious mind by taking a pause and reflecting on drives for your behaviours or by journaling your experiences and looking for trends in your feelings and behaviour.
2. Sit with uncomfortable feelings
It is natural to want to push uncomfortable feelings away without really understanding what we feel or where the feeling comes from. When we do this, uncomfortable sensations become something to fear and can create further stress. If it feels possible, try to sit with these feelings and explore the sensations inside your body that allow you to identify how you feel. Over time, the feelings will lose their power over you and you may be able to identify triggers and lessen how often this difficult feeling shows up.
3.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.
Click here for a free 30-minute mini-session to start your intuitive eating journey.
Emma Townsin is a registered dietitian and a certified intuitive eating counsellor. She believes every one of us deserves to be at peace with food and enjoy our life free from unrealistic ideals and weight stigma. Emma supports women to ditch dieting and find peace and connection with their bodies through her Empowered Women Academy, online courses and private counseling. Learn more about working with Emma 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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