Interoception vs. Exteroception
When you struggle with mental health, it is not something that goes away; it is not something that vanishes. It is something that can creep back in, slowly or in a straightforward trigger. A recent bout of anxiety that caught me off guard taught me that. One of the lessons in the shadows of that moment was the concept of interoception and exteroception. To truly understand or embody ideas sometimes we have to experience them, more on that later.
Many years ago when I was studying with Tracey Sorghrati she mentioned these concepts to me and I had no idea what they were, of course. I asked questions which she answered, but then I went on to study and learn more. During my time developing trauma awareness workshops and classes, the terms resurfaced when looking at yoga as a healing modality.
Exteroception is the sensory nerves that sense and respond to the world outside our body. Yoga can help us explore this concept through teacher verbal or physical adjustments in poses, voice or sound in cues, intonation and the words we use, also where we choose to focus our gaze on (dristi points). In our day-to-day life this can show up in relationships, or how we relate to the world outside of ourselves. It can look like people pleasing, being a yes person, or always needing external validation. During my bout with anxiety recently I learned that as much as I have worked on all of those aspects of my life, I still am strongly affected by external sources. An example we all may be able to relate to is social media. I have had so many conversations about social media and how it makes people feel, how it can lead to external sources of validation, or even not feeling adequate. I also started to notice that even something as nourishing as self-care has become an external thing, it has become something to place on a to-do list, book a massage, exercise, cook healthy food, for example, instead of something organic. So even during the downtime it still can be a response to the world outside of us.
Interoception, on the other hand, can be defined as stimulus coming from inside the body, the ability to feel what’s happing inside the body (Butterflies in stomach, pulse, breathing etc.). It is the ability to sense the activity of our inner self; heartbeat, stomach grumble, a muscle stretch; all give us the representation of our embodied self. Interoception can be the awareness of what’s going on within the boundaries of our skin. It is a deeper layer where we can see the material me and relates to how feelings from our bodies determine our moods, sense of wellbeing and emotions. There are three parts to this:
1. Our visceral experience,
2. Our motivation to act and
3. The effect it has on the world outside our visceral experience (mood and emotions).
Yoga is a tool we can use to explore interoception. We can direct our attention to noticing how poses feel in our body, experience our breath, use philosophy as a tool to examine our inner thoughts and emotions. In our daily life, we can look at how experiences make us feel, how we react to situations, what creates fire or drives us, versus what creates sadness and pain.
Through exploring both of these concepts in our day-to-day actions we can choose to be guided by external or internal sources, both have value. Taking the time to reflect in your day over your choices and responses can help you check in with yourself to help you connect with what is happening not only in the physical body but also the mental realm. One of the biggest lessons in my own life is that just because you love so many people or things and have lots of creative ideas doesn’t mean you have the time to do it all and to get quiet and listen to what is a top priority.