10 Ways to Connect to Our Interoceptive Sense to Help With PTSD
I didn’t know I was having a fight-or-flight response. For 23 years. A response that sent me flying outside of my body — dissociating — every time I became triggered. When there was too much sensory input. When I became too overwhelmed. Every time something took me back to my childhood. To my trauma.
While living in a fight-or-flight state, I wasn’t connected to my body. Which led to many extreme complications. Complications like fainting, having high fevers, rashes, hives, allergies, insomnia, chronic pain, digestive and reproductive issues, depression and anxiety and six neurological disorders. Complications that were indicators of trauma I didn’t know I had experienced. Something I only started to understand once I had access to my interoceptive sense.
For me, my interoceptive sense blends with my intuition. With my Higher Self. Guiding me. Directing me along my life’s path. Not the pain-filled, fear-filled path my trauma once led me down. And will lead me down again if I’m not careful. If I’m not aware. If I’m not connected to my interoceptive sense.
When we aren’t connected to our interoceptive sense, we are often unable to read our body’s cues. We don’t know when we’re hungry. When we’re tired. When we have to go to the bathroom. When something is painful. And we’re also unable to connect to our emotions. We don’t know when we’re angry. Or anxious. Or overwhelmed. And if we weren’t taught personal boundaries or how to feel our feelings, that connection is severed even further after experiencing a trauma.
Now, just over two years into my trauma recovery, one of the many things I’m learning is that the interoceptive sense plays the lead role in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual connections. The connections we lose the moment our conscious mind restricts information from us, often following trauma, and when we live with post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD, fight-or-flight responses and dissociation.
How I’ve Learned to Connect to My Interoceptive Sense (and How You Can Too)
When I began working with an occupational therapist (OT) for the first time over two years ago, she asked me what it felt like to be inside my body. Something I had never really considered before. Living in a fight-or-flight response for over 23 years can cause you to not feel safe inside your body. So you do everything to avoid being in it. And, therefore, you don’t engage your interoceptive sense.
While working with my OT and getting craniosacral therapy, I also followed the sensory diet she prescribed me. I was learning to re-regulate my nervous system, reactivating my interoceptive sense. The sense that was only stimulated by using my senses. By learning to live inside my body. By writing and reflecting. By observing. By looking deep within. And then, the memory of my trauma surfaced that explained all of my suffering. All of my complications. All of my pain.
Now that I’m healing, I’m starting to see when others are blocked from their interoceptive sense too. Others who have experienced childhood trauma — from intergenerational trauma — whether they know it or not. People I read about. People I see on TV. People I know.
Being connected to our interoceptive sense — having a connection to self that is intuitive and all-knowing — doesn’t feel supported enough in our society. The concept of getting into our bodies. Of feeling safe enough to explore our feelings, and of actually understanding our pain.
Not being connected to our interoceptive sense is one of the most misunderstood parts of people. There is the kid who is viewed as acting out in class because their nervous system isn’t regulated, and they need to get up and move around. Or the one who isn’t connected enough to their body to know how to control their bowel movements. Or the teenager who isn’t connected to their body enough to feel hunger, so they don’t eat. Or the person who doesn’t feel they are angry until they explode.
There is the parent who struggles just to get through the day, who deals with constant anxiety, fatigue and autoimmune illnesses. Who doesn’t know how to recognize their needs because they lived through childhood trauma, which disconnected them from themselves so much that they don’t even realize they have needs. Or the businessperson who experienced childhood trauma, whether they can recall it or not, and doesn’t know how to access their feelings. So they are scattered. Overactive. Hypervigilant. Or they’re depressed. Lethargic. Angry. They sinks into themselves to stay safe because they were never taught that their feelings matter. And they have been so far away from their feelings for so long, they don’t even know how to access them.
While connecting to our bodies is a journey, it is absolutely one worth taking. Trust me, I avoided being inside my body for over 23 years, not knowing how to connect to it (or even that I wasn’t) and pushing away its needs. Suppressing my pain with shame and self-harm. With drugs, tobacco and alcohol. With distractions that helped me avoid myself. But now that I know how to connect to my body — since I’ve taken the journey to exploring what my body was trying to tell me — I would do it all over again if I had to. Even though it’s been the most arduous experience of my life, it’s nothing compared to the trauma I suffered and to the state I was living in before I knew what happened to me. Before I had connected back to myself. And in order to heal ourselves, we have to connect to ourselves.
So in a way, this is a call to action. A plea for all of us to take the journey. To be mighty. To engage our interoceptive sense. To understand our body’s needs and our feelings. And to know what happens to us when we don’t. To gift ourselves the knowledge of ourselves. All of which comes from connecting to our interoceptive sense. To that inner wisdom we all carry inside.
I wish you all a safe journey to the center of yourself — of your universe — and I hope you begin to connect to the beauty that awaits you, no matter how treacherous the journey may be. I promise, it’s there. It’s all there. The answers to all your questions. The remedies to all your pain. It’s just waiting for you to connect to it. Within yourself. For once you learn to live within yourself, your life can truly begin.
10 Ways to Connect to Your Interoceptive Sense to Help with PTSD, Fight-or-flight Responses and Dissociation:
1. Keep a daily journal.
One of the most effective ways I’ve found to connect to my interoceptive sense, to know what my body’s cues are telling me, has been through daily journaling. You can do it any time, anywhere and as many times as you need to. Journaling does not have to mean sitting down and writing, though this also engages your tactile sense. It can mean speaking into the Notes app on your phone, jotting down notes in a notebook or taking five minutes each day to map out your thoughts, feelings and experiences. However you journal, make sure you take some time to reflect back at the end of the week or month. Make note of things that happened and how they made you feel. Begin to understand your inner landscape.
Stop what you’re doing. Focus on your breath. Breathe in through your nose while pulling your breath up toward your head on an inhale and breathe out through your nose while pushing your breath down to your toes on the exhale. Now close your eyes and repeat that five times. During the decades I was living in a fight-or-flight state, I struggled with breathing. Just basic, everyday breathing. I think it was because I was so far away from my body, I wasn’t connecting to its needs. Again, not connecting to my interoceptive sense. I would faint, have panic attacks, feel lightheaded, etc. Learning how to meditate, I began to develop a more natural rhythm to my breathing. Practicing yoga also helps me go with the flow of my breath. If you struggle with your breathing, I strongly suggest a daily meditation and/or yoga practice to help you reacquaint yourself with this essential life force. Yoga with Adriene is a great way to get started. It’s free and has videos for everything you’ll need that you can do in the comfort of your home.
3. Follow a sensory diet to help regulate your nervous system.
This is different for everyone, but it’s easy to do by incorporating ways to engage your senses throughout the day. It’s not a food diet, which is what I thought at first; rather, it’s a plan for using your senses. A daily plan you stick to, like a diet. For example, in the morning, I drink something hot and something cold (engaging my gustatory and interoceptive senses), write in my journal (engaging my tactile and interoceptive senses) and light a scented candle (engaging my olfactory sense). Try doing things during each part of your day to engage all eight of your senses: olfactory, visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, vestibular (movement, e.g. jumping on a mini trampoline), proprioceptive (where you are in space, e.g. using a weighted blanket), and of course, interoceptive. Engaging our senses is also particularly important amid dissociation or a fight-or-flight response.
4. Stimulate your vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve, running from our face to our abdomen, is responsible for carrying information from the body to the brain (it’s like the train for the interoceptive sense: taking information from one place to another). When the mind-body connection is not being made, and the vagus nerve is stimulated, a reconnection can occur. Think of jumping into a cold lake, the shock that makes you feel alive and awake — that’s the vagus nerve. Or the comfort of a hug when you’re feeling distraught — that’s the vagus nerve too. I use a vagus nerve stimulation device daily; click here to learn more.
5. Go at your own pace.
Don’t let others rush you or hold you back as it will cloud your needs and block your interoceptive sense. For me, the feeling that comes up when this happens is anxiety, or even anger. For others, it makes me appear rigid, stubborn, inflexible. But I find that if I voice my needs, we can find space to meet in the middle. For example, my husband is a fast-talker, so in order to keep my own pace during conversations without getting overwhelmed, I’ll ask him to slow down. And I make sure I’m paying attention, staying present, so I respond to him instead of react to him. That way, both our needs are met and we avoid having a potential problem.
6. Surround yourself with people who are nurturing toward your needs.
There’s a big difference between helping someone who’s having a fight-or-flight response and judging them for having one. Or worse, not being grounded enough in yourself and fighting back at them. The former helps bring someone out of it; the latter makes them have to fight harder. A recent example of someone helping someone else out of a fight-or-flight response by being nurturing was when Krista Gneiting disarmed an active shooter while teaching at Rigby Middle School, located in Idaho. Gneiting approached the student, removed the gun from her hand and then hugged her (stimulating her vagus nerve, engaging her interoceptive and proprioceptive senses, and acknowledging her pain). Reports say that when the girl was arrested, she went willingly. Even though she had been shooting people — fighting — she was now calm because of the love the teacher showed her. What if we all were more nurturing, more loving, toward someone else’s needs — even when that someone is trying to hurt us — oh what a different world it would be.
7. Set boundaries.
One of the things I know has contributed to my lack of connection to my interoceptive sense, and thus myself, was not knowing that I own my body and my needs and that others own theirs. Which meant growing up feeling like everything was my fault — feeling like I was responsible for the needs of others, including my parents, over myself — and assigning my self-worth based on how others were feeling. In order to set boundaries, I’ve spent years learning where I end and another begins. This can be extremely difficult, and at times quite painful, but ultimately, knowing we are all individuals who need to learn to live for ourselves is freeing.
8. Work with a psychotherapist.
I spent almost 20 years trying to find a good therapist to work with, and there are some bad ones out there. But finding the right one was worth the trouble. Finding someone who is able to sit with us in our discomfort, without trying to fix us, as we peel away the layers of our life to find our inner self is invaluable.
9. Work with an occupational therapist.
I think occupational therapy is highly undervalued when it comes to aiding with trauma recovery, and I am a huge proponent of it. Through exercises, craniosacral therapy and sensory incorporation, an occupational therapist can help get to the root of the ways you are suffering, help you determine your sensory diet and help you start living fully again.
10. Trust yourself.
Saved the hardest for last. When we’ve experienced a trauma, we’re robbed of trusting that the world is safe, and we doubt our ability to make decisions about our own safety. This typically manifests as fear. Over everything. Fear of breaking routines. Of going outside of our comfort zone. Meeting new people. Having new experiences. Leaving our house. We stop trusting we can feel better. We carry too much shame and guilt to believe we’re even worthy of getting better. If you have experienced a trauma, if you are suffering, my heart goes out to you. I hope you learn to trust yourself that you can get better. That you deserve to. What I’ve learned, after decades of searching, is we all have the remedies to our pain inside of us. All we have to do is know how to look, be prepared for the changes to feel uncomfortable at first and know that we can learn not only to survive, but to thrive.
I wish you many blessings as you travel to the center of your universe. Goddess-speed.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog
Image by Daniel Hannah from Pixabay