Week 2: Interoception vs. Reactivity

Week 2: Interoception vs. Reactivity

👉 Link to Week 2 Handbook 👈

2.1 🦍  Overview ~ Interoception vs. Reactivity

What if I told you that you could turn up the dial of your everyday experience? With sufficient practice, you could enhance your capacity to sense and track your internal state, as if you were upgrading from a 1960s television to experiencing the movie of your life at an IMAX in 4K. Well the path to get there comes through tuning into our capacity for what’s known as ‘interoception

By the end of these episodes – you will have an intellectual + embodied understanding of interoception & why it is one of the most essential & underrated skills that you can cultivate.

Drawing from emerging studies and literature, together we’ll explore how increasing this lesser-known capacity can upgrade your life and productivity: from making more informed decisions and enhancing emotional regulation to improving your capacity for empathy and reducing the risk of burnout.

We’ll also be exploring the two types of reactivity and how our capacity to interocept gives us the key to escape the limbic hijack of our protective + reactive responses.

Finally, you’ll experience guided protocols for improving your capacity for interoception.

One that you can practice in the morning in less than three minutes, and another that you can use as an afternoon reset for either 15 or 30 minutes to ground your nervous system, flush out cortisol and improve your interoceptive capacity.

2.2 🧠 Theory ~ The Art + Science of Interoception

🧠 You are Not a Brain on a Stick 🧠

Contrary to the cultural conditioning many of us received, you are, in fact, not a brain on a stick... you are, in fact, an incredibly complex network of over 100 billion neurons running like a vast interconnected web throughout your body.

Here’s a line from the essayist Michael Montaigne

"I look inside me: I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others...they always go forward; as for me, I roll about in myself."

Here we are seeking to learn to taste your inner landscape like a sommelier learns to improve his wine-tasting palette — this is known in neuroscience as our sixth sense of "Interoception" ~ or ‘somatic mapping.’

to break down this word: intero (internal) ~ ception (awareness)

Imagine going to a fancy Michelin Star restaurant, paying several hundred dollars for the food ~ and then wolfing it down in a couple of mouthfuls without savouring any of it. That’s pretty much what happens to us most of the time in life.

So just as we have a taste-palette that can sense 5 basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, we have an interoceptive palette ~ take a moment to tune in and see what you notice about your internal experience, what are some of the flavours or categories that are present?

Here are the five that I’d like to bring into your awareness.

Mental (racing thoughts, calm, foggy)

Posture (open + relaxed vs. tense + collapsed)

Breath (deep, slow, soft vs. shallow and fast)

Awareness (expanded + soft vs. narrow + contracted)

Emotional (gratitude, joy, sadness etc.)

Just as with tasting a Michelin star mouthful, there is an infinite number of flavour permutations within these categories that can be present.

When chefs are training the sensitivity of their palette, many reports of how important it is to experiment and be deeply curious—it’s also worth mentioning that just as high sugar content can numb the flavour palette, sustained high levels of cortisol in the body also numb our interoceptive palette. Again this is something you can notice, what is the quality of your interoceptive listening after a nap vs. after taking a double espresso?

No one ever taught us somatic literacy or body-awareness, but like anything, it’s a skill to be trained.

Why Does Interoception Matter?

Ludwig Wittgenstein said we cannot enter territory for which we do not have the language

What I hope to accomplish here is to impart literacy and a wider vocabulary of your internal landscape such that you can begin to explore it for yourself.

It really is crucial to have a shared language for the territory that we’re navigating.

Why am I starting here rather than sharing protocols for changing your state? Well. learning protocols for shifting your state without interoception is like putting your foot on the accelerator without being able to see through the front windscreen.

You can only respond to what you notice!

🐉 Here Be Dragons 🧠

Just like the maps of old with labels of “Here Be Dragons” when they didn’t know what was there ~ the somatic cortical maps in our brain have big smudges on them that we can restore through interoceptive exploration.


Interoception vs. Meditation

One question I sometimes get is asking how training our interoception is different from Meditation or Mindfulness practice. There is clearly some overlap here, but the most straightforward answer is that meditation often involves ‘doing’ whether it’s repeating a mantra or following the breath ~ whereas this is more like practicing to LISTEN and tune in and pay attention to the landscape of internal sensation without any other outcome in mind.

Interoception + Habit Change

Something I’ve noticed in my own life ~ years ago, I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I signed up for accountability challenges ~ and it's not that these don’t work, often they do ~ but I realised that often there was a part of my forcing myself. It was like I was trying to mentally override my body.

Again, there is a time and a place for this ~ but in my experience, it’s not sustainable. I’ve found that as my interoceptive sensitivity has increased, habits that I used to have to force myself out of have fallen away ~ and healthy habits arose in their place. It’s like my body knows what is good for it.

To give another anecdotal piece of evidence here, I have a friend who told me that the most effective way he found to quit smoking was to pay exceptionally close attention to all the senses. He said that when he tuned in so closely to these sensations, he felt like his body rejected the smoke. And this applies to many other things ~ if there’s something that you’re doing that you want to stop, try turning your interoception up to 10/10 and FEEL it all the way through and see what happens.

Factors that Impact Interoception

There are a couple of factors that have been shown to impact our baseline capacity for interoception

  • It has been widely documented that individuals with a history of acute trauma or adverse childhood experiences tend to score lower on interoceptive tests ~ this makes intuitive sense as, for many, there would have been moments when it wouldn’t have been safe to be in their body ~ so this numbing is a protection mechanism of sorts.
  • Second, and likely more actionable, is that lower cortisol levels ~ due to shift in what’s known as the HPA axis ~ lead to an increased capacity for interoception.
    • You can test this: try drinking a double espresso and then see if you notice less capacity for interoception compared to after a 15-minute non sleep deep rest practice.

What Studies Are Out There to Support This?

There is an emerging body of literature that is exploring the role of interoception ~ and there are two studies that I want to highlight.

The first is a 2018 study by Price and Hooven in which they unpack the connection between emotional regulation and interoceptive awareness.

The authors point out that increasing our internal sensations can at first be ‘unfamiliar or challenging’ ~ they write that ‘Often there is little to no knowledge on the client’s part that there are sensations that could be brought into awareness, as the patterns of conscious attention are so strongly set’

One of the examples that they cite of a real-life example of body-literacy training in which the therapist places downward pressure on the client’s shoulders.

The client responds by saying ‘it feels fine’ or shares a story without going into the actual sensation.

The invitation for him and for us is to instead say out loud or silently ~ I’m noticing X, or I’m experiencing Y… and speak to the specific sensation that’s present without any story or justification.

The authors of this study refer to this as ‘Body Literacy Training’ and cite several examples of how a lack of this body literacy tends to be associated with prolonged maladaptive stress responses.

The second is a 2019 paper from Arnold and Winkerman coming out of the University of California, where they focus on the role of ‘interoception in social connection’ (link) ~

I won’t go into too much depth here but it’s a great study and they highlight how flexibility in engaging interoception in social situations may be particularly important and also key for alleviating loneliness and improving social connection.

Finally, I want to mention what is known as the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness’ (link) which provides the most comprehensive self-assessment of one’s interoceptive capacity. I encourage you to click through and take the assessment ~ 37 questions for yourself and see how you score. The questions range from things like:

When I am tense I notice where the tension is located in my body’ and ‘When I am in conversation with someone, I can pay attention to my posture’ to ‘When I am upset, I take time to explore how my body feels.’ and ‘I trust my body’s sensations.’

📝 Summary - What Matters Most

I’m trying to get people perpetually curious about their internal state ~ once you’re curious ~ this will come naturally.

I felt conflicted as I was creating this course ~ I don’t want to tell you to DO this ~ what I’ve seen is that the true transformation comes from someone discovering for themselves & becoming fascinated by their internal landscape.

Interoception Survey.pdf108.3KB

How the survey is used (link)

2.3 😡 Theory ~ Two Types of Reactivity

So remember the RISE framework, well we’re going to unpack the first rung ~ Reactivity.

Intuitively I’m sure you can imagine what this refers to. You probably can remember a time in the last day or week when you fell into some kind of reactive pattern.

One way that I like to define reactivity is as the gap between who you aspire to be in any situation as and the reality of who you show up as.

However, viewed through the lens of Polyvagal theory, we get a powerful insight into the nature of ‘reactivity.’

When we’re hijacked by our survival or limbic brain ~ we go outside what’s known as our Window of Tolerance ~ i.e. we’re no longer in Ventral Vagal - either the engine in the car is revving too much or the handbrake gets slammed on.

The first is the sympathetic fight/flight response ~ which usually leads to some kind of automatic aggressive response

But the other is the activation of the Dorsal Fuse ~ which leads to shut-down or withdrawl.

I’ll use myself as an example. In times when I’d get into some conflict with my wife, if I was being attacked even in a minor way ~ instead of arguing back, I would often withdraw and emotionally shut down. On the surface, I’d appear calm and nonchalant, but in reality, I was numb on the inside.

I know others who return defensively with even more aggression. I’m sure we’ve all seen or witnessed scenarios like this. And as my now wife will attest, learning how to notice when I’m in reactivity and step away ~ makes the difference between a spiraling argument vs. productive conflict.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we might not be married and as fulfilled as we are in this partnership were it not for both of our capacity to track our reactivity and self-regulate in healthy ways.

We’ll come to the protocols and theory for how to RISE out of the reactivity, but for now, it’s essential to know that in order to do so, we first must REALISE that we’ve been hijacked and we’ve got our armour up ~ and this requires being in touch with our internal state or having at least some degree of interoception online so that we can notice it and then begin to take steps to climb back up from the bottom of the brainstem to ourselves.

Remember the Gurdjieff quote: If you wish to get out of prison, the first thing you must do is realise that you are in prison” ~ and interoception gives us that realisation.

2.4 🐠  Reflection ~ Somatic Mapping

When I was living in Bali, I fell in love with the art and sport of apnea or freediving.

This involves taking a giant breath of air and then diving underwater as deep as you can go.

With training, I was able to dive down to 100ft underwater, where the pressure is three times that at the surface. Here your lungs shrink to 1/3 of the size, creating what’s known as the ‘squeeze’ or ‘the mother of all hugs’.

The more that I practiced freediving, the more that I began to think of it as high-stakes interoception training.

If you’re out of touch with what’s going on internally at 100ft underwater, you’re kind of screwed.

// 📝 Workbook Question

What is an experience in your life that brings you inside your body? What is your equivalent of freediving?

The magic of interoception is that you can practice it in any moment ~ whether you’re going for a run, sitting on a train, or walking through a park ~ you can train your ability to bring your attention inwards and explore.

2.5 🤓  Theory ~ ‘A.P.E.’ Training

// 🦍 What does A.P.E. mean?

A.P.E. is an acronym that I coined that stands for ‘Awareness’, ‘Posture’ + ‘Emotion’. These are three of the key components of your interoceptive capacity that you’ll be training yourself to pay greater attention to.

I also like this acronym because it’s also a gentle reminder that we’re not much more than a hairless APE with overgrown neo-cortexes.

// ❓ Why do This?

Imagine this is like checking your windscreen before you start driving. Or like a pilot sharing an interoceptive evaluation before getting into the driving seat.

We’re bringing awareness to the state of our nervous system and, therefore, the filters that we’ll be experiencing this day with.

But more importantly, we’re building the reps of our interoceptive muscles—by doing this every day for 6 weeks—you will create neuroplastic shifts that dramatically increase your internal self-awareness. This is the foundation of everything else.

So the idea is that you set aside just a minute or two of your morning ~ I like to do this after my morning movement practice but before I start the work day.

// 🦍 Taking A.P.E. with You During the Day

Now, of course, as with any training, the goal is not to merely confine your interoceptive listening to this 5-minute window but to practice so that remembering APE becomes a habitual part of your day.

You want to view life ~ all the beautiful highs and lows that it will inevitably bring as the training dojo for your APE.

It’s up to you how you wish to integrate this into your life. Consider this an invitation to get creative.

Over time you’ll begin to build your own APE library. You’ll notice the situations, environments, or moments in your day that have their own unique APE flavour.

With time, you’ll also find that you identify less with ‘the story’ of what’s happened and more with tuning into what is alive at this moment in your internal experience.

Whether it’s when you’re chewing on a delicious chunk of chocolate, or after an intense workout when your heart is pounding – these are all opportunties to track your internal state.

With time and practice you might even be able to stay tuned in during something as challenging as a confrontation or in your frustration at missed a train, or whatever the external trigger is.

// 🚀 What are the benefits?

I’d like to read what one NSM alumni ~ Sam Sager wrote, with his permission, about his experience of cultivating interoception ~ because I think it really highlights how this simple practice can radically change your life.

I’ve always been interested in physical and mental wellness. I’ve gone down rabbit holes on exercise, meditation, cold exposure, therapy, float tanks, psychedelics, and pretty much any area with a shred of potential. Yet, I always felt like something was missing.
There was a lack of contact with my experience of these things.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit how much this concept rocked my world. It's not that I never felt anything like some crazy robot. It’s just that it was dull background noise buried beneath everything happening in my head.
There’s this whole world of sensory experiences that I don’t know how to access.
Cultivating Interoception completely transformed my approach to fitness where every workout is now an opportunity to connect to the body. It’s evolved my meditation practice where increases in sensory clarity are a frequent source of excitement and joy2. It helps me embrace more intuitive decisions in my business3 and expands my sense of connection with others. I could go on and on.
Most of all, this journey has taught me that there is deep wisdom within our own bodies that we can tap into if we learn how to listen.

You can read Sam’s post in full here

And I’ll echo Sam’s reflections by adding that tuning into my APE has enhanced my experience of life ~ and capacity to feel joy or love or aliveness ~ it has almost been like a thawing of my emotional life and the experience of being more myself, which regardless of who you are is I think something that we can all benefit from.

2.6 🦍  Protocol ~ A.P.E. Exploration

Welcome to this short guided Interoceptive APE exploration.

Okay let’s begin.

Find a comfortable seat.

Ensure your lower spine is straight.

Relax your belly.

Close down your eyes.

Practice light, slow breathing through the nose and into the belly for 10 breaths.

Place your right hand on the belly to feel it expanding on inhale, and contracting on exhale.

Ideally you’ll want your inhale to be about 5 seconds and your exhale about 5 seconds.

This is the ideal breathing cadence, but also don’t force it.

Now let go of any conscious control of the breath

  • and take in a full inhale and tense all of your muscles.
  • let go and let out a sigh.
  • same thing again, take a full inhale ~ tense all of your muscles
  • hold 2…3….
  • And let everything go with a sigh.

Alright now we’re grounded we’re going to tune in and begin the APE interoceptive practice.

  • First up is ‘A’ for Awareness:
    • is there a sense of narrow focus or expansive awareness? are you aware of the space above you or even behind you?
    • Does your awareness feel distracted or calm in this moment?
    • Does it feel Sleepy or Alert? Is your mind busy or at ease?
    • Now place all your attention in the soles of your feet for a minute and feel what’s there. The warmth, or the pressure.
    • Just note for yourself.

  • Okay, next, turn your attention to P for POSTURE:
    • how is your spine? Begin at your tailbone
    • gently move your awareness up the spine, a few vertibrae at a time.
    • Are there any points of tension?
    • Are there any points you struggle to connect to?
    • how does your head feel resting on your neck?
    • how is your jaw? your face, your eyes?
    • how is the belly?
    • Is there a lack of sensation?
    • How does my chest feel? Is there a sense of expansiveness or contraction?
    • Can you feel your heartbeat?
    • Can you feel your breath rising and falling?
    • Let go of any story as to why this might be ~ just becomingly increasingly curious about what is here.
  • Finally we have ‘E’ for Emotion:
    • are there any noticeable emotions present?
    • joy? sadness? gratitude? grief?
    • What might be the emotional tone?
    • And it’s totally fine if you don’t connect to anything in this moment. This isn’t about trying to create any state but rather listening intently to what is already present.
    • Part of this listening is tuning into physical sensations ~ if you like you can imagine that you’re a a scientist objectively reporting on internal sensations or perhaps a weather man giving an update on the weather systems of your own body.
    • Just notice anything that arises.
    • Bring your awareness to my voice, and the space around you, and take a full breath in ~ and sigh it out.
    • Now gently open your eyes and come back into the space.

      See if you can increase the granularity.

      Tune into any subtle-ty

2.7 🛌  Theory ~ Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest

NSDR –– or “non-sleep-deep-rest” –– is a term coined by Stanford professor Andrew Huberman that uses a technique of guided body scanning to induce a state of waking sleep.

There are many benefits to this practice, but one that is lesser known is its potential to increase interoceptive sensitivity.

It involves a thorough scan of the inner landscape, bringing awareness to specific points around the body, and has been shown to activate slower brain waves and in turn improve markers of cardiovascular health and heart rate variability.

If you were to measure your brain waves during the practice, you'd see that they are rapidly moving from active beta, into alpha and eventually down into what's known as a "hypnagogic state”—which is the threshold between alpha & theta waves, kinda like a knife’s edge where the body technically “sleeps” while the mind is lucid.

In one study I came across, a nidra practice was delivered weekly for 16 weeks, remotely to 32 patients suffering from generalised anxiety and they reported that their overall state anxiety was decreased by 41%.

NSDR has also been shown to flush cortisol and norepinephrine –– aka adrenaline –– from the system so that your body is naturally primed to be more receptive to interoceptive exploration.

Finally, if someone as busy as the Google CEO Sundar Pichai finds time to practice NSDR — as he mentioned recently in a recent Wall Street Journal interview — then you probably don’t have a good excuse not to try.

Alright, so now onto the logistics of how and when.

In terms of the ideal timing – it’s optimal for our circadian rhythms to practice NSDR between 2-4pm when there is a natural dip in energy.

However you can experiment with this for yourself. I know that Andrew Huberman for example will often listen to a guided session upon waking if he doesn’t feel fully rested. And it can also be used as a hack for memory consolidation if say you’re learning something new – or as integration after an emotional release.

Choose between the following two guided NSDRs – one is 15 minutes and one is 30 minutes. Both are effective, however some people report needing at least 30 minutes to fully drop in.

You can also find some excellent guided NSDR videos from Ally Boothroyd for free on youtube and Insight Timer.

There is no affiliate here but I just enjoy her recordings.

If you find yourself falling asleep – don’t worry, this is probably what your body needs. if this continues you can also experiment with raising one hand from the elbow to keep you awake.

My recommendation is a minimum of 7 guided sessions over a two week period to begin feeling some of the benefits.

I recommend using an eye-mask or soft fabric to cover your eyes. A weighted blanket can also aid with relaxation.

Remember that you have a workbook to journal in afterwards to describe your experience and any shifts that you notice.

2.8 🛌  Protocol ~ Afternoon Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest NSDR (15 mins)

Welcome to this guided NSDR practice.

When you are ready to begin, please lie down and settle on your back.

Be sure that whatever you're resting on is soft yet supportive enough.

So for the next half hour or so, you can be completely comfortable and not have to move or adjust your position.

If you like, place a rolled blanket onto your knees for additional lower back support and consider the use of a cervical pillow to support your neck.

Position your head so that your neck and upper spine are completely free of tension.

It can also be supportive to have an eye-mask on for the duration of this practice or be in a room without bright lights

Rest your arms by your side with your palms turned face up, and nothing touching your fingertips.

Feel your whole body beginning to soften.

As you listen, just allow my directions to wash over you. The more effortless you can be the better. There's nothing to reach for nothing to accomplish.

We'll be entering a deep state of rest coupled with a slight trace of awareness. simply relax and be aware.

This practice is all about learning to become and learning to be completely effortless.

Close your eyes. Let your body open and settle deeply and completely. Relax. Allow your upper and lower teeth to part slightly.

Begin by taking a few slow comfortable breaths. Breathing in and out through the nostrils. sense that each time you exhale, the body relaxes more completely.

Continue to breathe in smoothly. And as you exhale, release all stress and tension. Remember not to try. Breathe in and out effortlessly.

Continue to breathe smoothly and evenly for another few moments. continue to refine and balance your breath so that it's even and smooth.

Now, allow your breath to become involuntary.

We're going to scan the body and create relaxation through tensing individual muscles.

Starting with your feet. As you breath in tense and contract the muscles in your feet. Exhale and let it go.

Now inhale and contract your calves and shins. Exhale and let it go.

Inhale and contract your thighs. Exhale and let it go.

Inhale and tense your gluts and hip flexors. Exhale and let them go.

Inhale and tense your belly and lower back. Exhale and let them go.

Inhale and tense your diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Exhale and let them go.

Inhale and tense your upper chest and shoulders. Exhale with a big sigh and let them go.

Now inhale and clench your hands into fists. Exhale and let them go.

Inhale and tense your whole arms. Exhale and let them go.

Inhale and squeeze your jaw and face and eyes... and let that go.

Finally with one big inhale tense your entire body... hold 2, 3, 4 and let it all go.

From here, sense your body at ease your mind open and at peace. Feel your body opening to the earth. Your whole body is softening. facial muscles relax jaw, tongue, and lips all relax.

Your eyes relax as they succumb to the pull of gravity.

Feel a growing sense of peace and appreciation for exactly where you are in this very moment.

Now you're ready for the next stage — a scan of points throughout the body. As I guide you to these points do not try to actively concentrate on them but rather just be aware of the specific area I'm directing you to.

This part of the practice will develop and refine your sense of interoception and specific nerve clusters throughout your body.

Okay, to start off please bring your attention to the point between your eyebrows. Relax the whole body. Be aware of the point between your eyebrows.

Bring your attention to your throat. Be effortless.

To the center of your right shoulder joint.

Center of the right elbow. Be effortless.

Right wrist.

Tip of your thumb.

Relax the whole body.

Right index finger. Middle finger, relax. Ring finger. Little Finger relax the whole body.

Move into your right wrist. right elbow. Right shoulder

Be effortless. Center of your throat.

Please move your awareness to your left shoulder joint. Be effortless. Left elbow. left wrist. Tip of the left thumb.

Relax. Tip of the index finger. Middle finger left ring finger. Little Finger relax the whole body.

Bring your awareness to your left wrist. left elbow. left shoulder. center of the throat whole body effortless.

Draw up your attention down to your sternam. Relax

The right chest. Be aware of the right chest.

Relax your whole body. Now the center of the breastbone.

left chest. center of the breastbone. throat

Be mindful of the center of your throat. Whole body relaxed.

Move your attention to the point between your eyebrows Relax. Relax your whole body. Be aware of the point between your eyebrows.

The next stage of practice, you're going to imagine feeling different sensations.

Once again, remember to be effortless. Imagine that the body is heavy. feel as though your whole body is sinking into the earth. Every part of the body arms, legs, torso and head is being drawn toward the center of the earth.

Even the eyes and the eyelids are heavy. Feel the whole body heavy.

Be effortless, and feel the whole body heavy. Now feel the body is weightless. Head is weightless, arms are weightless, whole body is weightless.

The body is so light that you are now aware that there is space between your body and the surface on which it is resting. Be aware of this space between the body and whatever it is resting on.

Just relax. There is nothing to do, nothing to look for. Be effortless, and just observe.

Be effortless and just observe Please bring your attention to your breath. And watch as the breath moves in and out through the nostrils.

Begin to notice air passing through your nostrils. Feel it rise smoothly on inhale and fall on exhale.

Finally, let go of any sense of doing or trying. For the final minute of this practice you have full permission to let go into a state of deep relaxation.

Alright, please become aware of your breath.

Be aware of the body breathing.

Gradually become more conscious of the sounds around you.

Slowly come back to your breath. Come back to the body.

Take your time. Start to move your body any way that feels good.

When you're ready, inhale and roll over to your right side to adjust.

Gradually, come to a seated position and open your eyes.

The practice of NON SLEEP DEEP REST is now complete.

2.9 🛌  Protocol ~ Afternoon Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest NSDR (21 mins)

The following guided NSDR practice is recorded by my wife Kelly Wilde Miller – in case you’d prefer the sound of a soothing female voice – Kelly is a former sleep coach turned re-wilding mentor for leaders – I hope you enjoy her extended NSDR practice as much as I did.