Interoception: Poor Internal Sensations and Eating Disorders
New research suggests that poor “interoception” – the process by which we notice and understand internal sensations, like how hungry or thirsty we are – may contribute to eating disorders. When it comes to disordered eating, the common stereotypes that restricting stems from an unrelenting quest for thinness and bingeing is due to a lack of self-control are wrong.
Poor Interoception Makes You Feel Disconnected from Your Body
I see how poor interoception plays out in my life. Feeling connected to my body hasn’t always been easy. At times, life has resembled a fast-paced showreel of emotions, sensations, and activities, with little opportunity to be truly present and conscious.
People who’ve battled eating disorders can feel particularly out of tune with their body’s signals, including feelings of hunger and satiety. They might restrict or turn to food to appease difficult emotions, and over time these behaviors can become default responses.
But what comes first? Does a troubled relationship with food sever our connection to internal signals, or do poor networks of perception foster dysfunctional eating habits? What is the role of interoception in eating disorders?
The Role of Interoception in Eating Disorders
A recent study showed that people with anorexia and bulimia displayed poor interoceptive awareness; in other words, they found it hard to detect bodily signals, such as their own heartbeats, feelings of pain, and how hot or cold they were. Our brains decipher these notifications, which can be unconscious or noticeable, and which ultimately help navigate what’s going on in our bodies.1
Brain-imaging studies support these findings, indicating that different parts of the brain are activated for interoception in people with eating disorders compared to those without a diagnosis.2
Learning to Eat Intuitively Has Improved My Interoception
Intuitive eating has helped transform my relationship with food. This philosophy and approach entail paying close attention to internal cues like hunger and satiety, and learning how to respond mindfully, rather than dieting, overindulging, or using food for comfort or relief.
Eating intuitively felt difficult when I was stuck in the throes of an eating disorder. I had no idea where to start. I’d been entangled in dysfunctional behaviors for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to recognize and attend to my body’s natural rhythm and requests. But it’s possible to learn how to eat intuitively, one bite at a time.
Improving Interoception Through Meditation
Meditation helped me get back in touch with my body, facilitating long-term recovery. I’ve noticed that when I meditate regularly, I feel more aware of what I need in each moment and less prone to disordered eating. Meditation gives me the space to take time out and sometimes that’s all we need to prevent us from repeating old patterns and listen to what we truly need.
Through understanding the role that impaired interoception plays in eating disorders, therapists can focus on helping survivors feel more connected to their inner worlds, which is ultimately what many ancient practices like yoga and meditation can do.
I discovered meditation almost 15 years ago and I feel grateful for the role it’s played in my life. It’s not a panacea. Sometimes we need other things to heal; sometimes we need to cry, scream, or feel anger, and sometimes it’s okay to feel challenged and not have it all figured out. But in this age of disembodiment, meditation has been my most consistent tool for looking within and reconnecting with my body and its signals. And with practice, I feel more rooted in the world and less governed by ego.
Do you think you have a poor sense of interoception? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.
- Jenkinson, P. et al. “Self-Reported Interoceptive Deficits in Eating Disorders: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Using the Eating Disorder Inventory” Journal of Psychosomatic Research. July 2018.
- Khalsa, S. et al. "Can Interoception Improve the Pragmatic Search for Biomarkers in Psychiatry?" Personality and Individual Differences. July 2016.
Redif, Z. (2019, July 18). Interoception: Poor Internal Sensations and Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2019/7/interoception-poor-internal-sensations-and-eating-disorders