Interoception, senses, and anxiety

I’m reading The Extended Mind, and the first chapter is about interoception as a form of thinking we do. (Interoception is awareness of what’s happening inside our bodies.) An example the author gives is that stock brokers tend to have better interoception than the average person (correlation or causation unclear) and are willing to act on it — basically, following their “gut instinct.”

That reminded me of something else I read recently (a source): a racing heart may cause anxiety, just as anxiety can make your heart race. Feeling sensations that are symptomatic of anxiety could prompt feeling anxious.

It got me wondering: might people with anxiety have more sensitive interoception than others, but aren’t correctly interpreting their bodies signals and instead expressing it as anxiety?

I say that I have a bad sense of interoception, but that may not quite be the case. In chatting with a friend, we noticed that we’ll recognize we’re hungry, but just not do anything about it; that’s more a matter of ignoring signals than not receiving them. I’d presume a pattern of ignoring the body’s signals can also make you less likely to notice them, training your brain that these signals are not important. It’s not uncommon for me to feel strange sensations in my body, which as a mild hypochondriac I want to interpret as something scary since others don’t seem to feel these kind of things — but what if I’m simply more sensitive to these sensations than others, so I’m noticing them where others don’t?

I also seem to have a high awareness for sound and smells. A soft rhythmic squeak at my old office building was irritating me for weeks; no one else noticed it, but finally I had maintenance come look at the light overhead and they found that the frame wasn’t clipped in correctly, so vibrations were translating into squeaking. When a pipe on our water heater burst in the garage, I first noticed the smell of wet wood. My husband dismissed it because we’ve long joked I have a weird sense of smell — till he saw water draining out from under the garage door in our driveway 😂

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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