Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

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If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What is interoception?

Interoception is the ability to feel your inner states: sensations that arise from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes a heart awareness.

Many people find it difficult to detect their heartbeat or can only do so with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers are not well developed. For others, detecting a heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not many people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first found it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t found it before.

You will probably hear it a lot more in the future, because it has become clear that having a bad interoception has its drawbacks.

Not being able to feel the inner states of the body leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine driving a car without a fuel gauge. You would probably run out of fuel because you don’t have vital information about the condition of your vehicle.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body gives you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. When you are aware that you are anxious, for example, you are already anxious really anxious. Being able to detect these signals early means you can decide before you do anything to stay calm.

Interoception and depression

Low interoceptive capacity is related to depression. In one study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety) showed a lower ability to test their heart rate than a control group.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they said they had experienced in their lives.

Interoception and poor decision making

And that had an interesting side effect. Low interoceptive awareness also correlates with difficulty making decisions. The reason for this is that decision making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake are more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not if we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely based on how we do it feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, we can’t make decisions easily. In fact, if we do not feel our feelings, we may be more likely to make bad decisions, such as trusting someone who is not trustworthy or choosing a job that is likely to make us unhappy.

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Interoception and anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do a heartbeat test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart. I don’t know if there is any research to support this, but I suspect that some people can only feel their heartbeat when they are already anxious, and because they are not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feel the heart. beating in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really bad, which precipitates even more anxiety.

However, it can be atypical: people with an anxiety disorder tend to be more aware than the average of the body’s interoceptive signals. What may be going wrong is that these signals (increased heart rate and frequency, nausea, etc.) are misread and are taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It is possible, in fact, to be anxious to be anxious.

Meditators are better at interoception

Meditation, at least in the Buddhist tradition, emphasizes body awareness, which means paying attention to the sensations of the body. Many meditators, including myself, will report that meditation training has helped them to become more aware of their body.

For me, this has been like moving from a black and white body drawing to a full color image. Every time I turn my attention to the body I now experience currents of energy, tingling and pleasure, which is called braided and Pāli i priti in Sanskrit. This is very different from how my body had experienced. But this is anecdotal evidence.

Dancers versus meditators

In a study I found fascinating for a long time, in a 2010 study, published in Emotion, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotional film clips to experienced meditators (their average practice time was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people and also asked the study participants to indicate their current state of feeling (from very negativeThrough neutrala very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess the extent to which the self-reported experience of members of each of the three groups coincided (or was “consistent” with) with their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of consistency (i.e., their self-informed feelings matched what was happening in their body), the dancers were intermediate, and the control group had the least consistency.

In addition, when it came to self-informed visceral awareness (how well their feelings could be felt), meditators reported the highest levels, dancers were intermediaries, and controls reported the lowest levels.

So it seems that meditation training improves inner consciousness, which is what you might expect. Of course, people with higher visceral consciousness may be more likely to be attracted to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked at whether there was a correlation between the duration of the practice and body awareness. . They found no significant correlation, but at that time the sample size was too small for them to draw definitive conclusions.

Interoception can be learned

Most recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, the researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism are often not good at interoceptive tasks. For example, they are not good at counting heartbeats. At the same time, they tend to overemphasize the inner sensations they experience. In other words, they are overreacting to body signals.

Researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism perform better in their heartbeat detection tasks and that this, in turn, would help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Surprisingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of participants he no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for interoception

Many approaches to breathing consciousness meditation tend to focus closely on breathing, that is, the sensations of the air touching the steps as it enters and leaves the body. This helps to learn interoception only in a very limited way.

My own approach has been to increasingly raise awareness of the movements and sensations of breathing throughout the body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing to Be Human,” helps you feel the breath of your entire body, including the most subtle sensations you might normally ignore. Please try it and you will see how it goes.

#matters #feel #heartbeat

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