I read an article written by an OT named Kelly Mahler in OT Advance (Interoception: The Eight Sensory System, June 2016, Vol. 32 No. 6) about a newly recognized 8th sense of the body that could be responsible for our capability to handle the sensations of the inner world of our bodies. It’s called interoception. Interoception allows us to know “how do we feel?” It keeps us aware of whether or not we feel we need to use the restroom, nauseous, hot, cold, sexually aroused, sleepy, in pain, tired from physical exertion, ticklish, hungry, or full. It also keeps us aware of our emotions as well.
Those who meditate have stronger interoceptive awareness because through their practice they increase the strength and thickness of a part of the brain called the insula. The insula plays a major role in body-mind awareness and the ability to handle sensations and adjust reactions to those sensations. It may even balance the experience of a sensation, making it less harsh or less dull because being aware of the sensation for what it purely is inhibits the conceptualized story that may exaggerate or diminish it.
But that skill takes a long time to develop. It takes a lot of meditative practice to get to the level of awareness of internal sensation that could affect your perception of those sensations.
There’s another way, however, that may be more approachable to others who may find meditation challenging. Practicing using a Body Check Chart can help with increasing interoceptive awareness (IA). This chart makes the illusiveness and abstractness of internal sensation more concrete by having a visual structure to represent those internal experiences. There’s six steps to how to use the Body Check Chart:
1. First allow the person space and time to really focus their attention on a specific body part and to ask themselves how it feels.
2. Then the person will look at the Body Check Chart and find the part they were focusing their attention on with the matching description of the sensation. They can use a blank descriptor if none of the others match.
3. The person places the body part where it belongs in the space of their body outline.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 for other body parts. You can start with a smaller number of parts each time and gradually grow to a larger number. You can also start with parts that you can see and gradually add parts that cannot be seen from the outside like the heart.
5. Use the Body Check Chart many times throughout the day. Start with sensations during calm and happy moments if someone is really sensitive. If it’s too challenging to decipher subtle sensations, the person can instead start with checking more intense positive sensations like being tickled or massaged, lifting a heavy grocery bag or touching a warm cup of tea.
6. After noticing the sensations, the person can interpret and give meaning to them by looking through a list of body states and emotions. The person will then find the body states and emotions that best matches with the identified body signals. The list can grow as the person gets more proficient.
Other ideas that can make the process of using the Body Check Chart fun and accessible are:
• Tracing the person’s body and putting their name on it.
• Pointing to a body part on the chart and asking the person to wiggle the corresponding area.
• Pointing to the body parts in the chart while playing Simon Says.
• Making an observation about the person’s body part (fingers tapping, feet shaking, etc.) and labeling it on the chart.
• Experimenting with sensations of a body part and describing how it feels like touching different textures and tasting different foods.
I enjoyed the article because it inspired me to be more aware of my own body and provided me the possibility of having more control in how I experience it. But mostly I was inspired by the creative and simple strategies to be able to do that with and how I could use those strategies to help my clients. I hope these ideas inspire and help you and those who could benefit from these ideas!
Photo is from Ms. Sepp’s Counselor Corner.