Minding your body: Interoceptive awareness, mindfulness and living well


We all grow up with a pretty good idea of what our body feels like; what normal is. It’s one of the first “tasks” of infancy, it seems, to work out what is me and what is not. When people experience a disturbance to the way their body moves or feels, it can take some time to get used to that new way of being. In pregnancy, where the body takes on a different shape and dimension, it’s not uncommon to bump into things because the new shape hasn’t yet sunk in!

This awareness of “what my body feels like” is called interoceptive awareness (IA), and I was intrigued to read this paper by Hanley, Mehling and Garland (2017) in which IA is examined in relation to dispositional mindfulness (DM). DM is thought to be the innate tendency to notice without judging or automatically reacting to what is going on. IA may be extremely sensitive in some people – for example, people with health anxiety might notice their sweaty palms and heart palpitations and then worry that they’re about to have a heart attack, or the same symptoms in someone with social anxiety might be experienced as indications to LEAVE RIGHT NOW because EVERYONE is looking at ME.

I’m not sure of research into IA in people with persistent pain, although I am positive it’s something that has been studied (see Mehling, Daubenmier, Price, Acree, Bartmess & Stewart, 2013). As a result, in my conclusions I’m going to draw from my experience working with those living with persistent pain, and extrapolate wildly!

This study aimed to establish the relationship between various items on two questionnaires used to measure IA and DM: the MAIA (Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness), and the FFMQ (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). The paper itself discusses the first measure as empirically derived and confirmed by focus groups, and having associations with less trait anxiety, emotional susceptibility and depression – in other words, high scores on this measure (awareness of body sensations and judging those sensations) are associated with important factors influencing our wellbeing. The second measure is described as “one of the most commonly used self-report measures of DM”. It consists of five scales thought to measure important aspects of mindfulness (observing, not reacting and acting with awareness).

Along with these two measures, the authors examined wellbeing, which essentially was defined as a tendency to accept oneself, have a purpose, manage the environment, develop good relationships, continue to grow as a person and be independent and autonomous. We could probably argue about these dimensions in view of what may be a cultural component (autonomy may not be highly favoured in some communities).

Recruitment was via mTurk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing website. As a result participants possibly don’t represent the kinds of people I would see in clinical practice. And half of the 478 participants were excluded because people didn’t complete all the questionnaires. I could quibble about this sample, so bear that in mind when you consider the results.

Results

Turning to the results, the first finding was a good correlation between all three questionnaires, with the FFMQ more strongly correlated with psychological wellbeing than the MAIA. But these researchers wanted more! So they carried out canonical correlation analysis, which is used to correlate the latent variables present in measurement instruments. It’s complicated, but what it can tell us is how underlying aspects of two unrelated measures might fit together. In this instance, the researchers found that two of the FFMQ (non-reacting and observing) were related to six of the eight MAIA factors (attention regulation, self-regulation, trusting, emotional awareness, body listening and noticing). They also found that FFMQ ‘non-judging’ and ‘acting with awareness’ were associated with MAIA ‘not worrying’ subscale.

What does this tell us? Well, to me it’s about grouping somewhat-related items together from two instruments to work out their contribution to something else. The authors thought so too, and therefore completed a further analysis (told you it was complicated!), to look at a two-step hierarchical multiple regression where the two sets of scales were entered into equations to see how much each contributed to the psychological wellbeing score. Whew!

What they found was interesting, and why I’m fascinated by this study despite its shortcomings.

What can we do with this info?

Being mindfully observant and non-reactive seems to be associated with a person’s ability to notice and control attention to what’s going on in the body. Makes sense to me – knowing what goes on in your body but being able to flexibly decide how much to be bothered about, and what you’re going to do about those sensations will make a difference to how well you can cope with things like fatigue, hunger, the need to change body position or to sustain a position when you’re focusing on something else – like hunting!

Apparently, being able to attend to body sensations is also part of regulating your emotional state, and if you can do this, you’ll generally experience your body as a safe and “trustworthy” place. And if you can do this when your body doesn’t feel so good yet still remain calm and accepting, this is a good thing. In the final analysis, these authors called the first cluster of statements “Regulatory awareness” – being aware of your body and regulating how you respond to it. The second cluster related more with non-judging and acting with awareness, so the authors called this “Acceptance in action”.

For people living with persistent pain, where the body often does not feel trustworthy and there’s an increased need to “ignore” or “let go” or “not judge” painful areas, it seems that one of the most important skills to learn is how to self regulate responses to IA. To take the time to notice all the body (not ignore the sore bits, nor obsess about the sore bits). This doesn’t come easily because I think for most of us, we’ve learned we need to notice pain – after all, ordinarily it’s helpful! The second part is to accept in action – in other words discriminating between unpleasant body sensations are should be worried about, and those not needing our attention is an adaptive skill. Perhaps mindfulness gives us better capabilities to discriminate between what needs to be taken into account, and what does not.

Interestingly, the least strongly associated response items were related to using words to describe what goes on in the body. For me this suggests experiential practices might be more useful to help people develop these two skills than simply talking about it. And suggests that maybe we could use meditative movement practices as a good way to develop these skills.

R.A. Baer, G.T. Smith, J. Hopkins, J. Krietemeyer, L. Toney, (2006) Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness, Assessment 13 27–45.

Hanley, A. W., Mehling, W. E., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 99, 13-20. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.05.014

W.E. Mehling, J. Daubenmier, C.J. Price, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A.L. Stewart, (2013). Self-reported interoceptive awareness in primary care patients with past or current low back pain, Journal of Pain Research. 6

W.E. Mehling, C. Price, J.J. Daubenmier, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A. Stewart, (2012) The multidimensional assessment of interoceptive awareness (MAIA), PLoS One 7  e48230.

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