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Trauma, the Nervous System and Interoception: Unlocking the Sensory Experience

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Trauma can have profound effects on the nervous system, disrupting various sensory processes that contribute to our overall well-being. One particular sensory sense that is significantly influenced by trauma is interoception—the internal perception and awareness of bodily sensations. In this blog, we will explore the intricate relationship between trauma, the nervous system, and interoception. Understanding this connection is crucial for recognizing the challenges faced by individuals who have experienced trauma and implementing effective strategies to promote healing and resilience.

The Nervous System's Response to Trauma:

When a person experiences trauma, the body's stress response system, controlled by the autonomic nervous system, is activated. The sympathetic branch prepares the body for "fight or flight" responses, while the parasympathetic branch promotes a state of calm and restoration. However, during traumatic events, these systems can become dysregulated, leading to long-lasting effects on sensory processing and overall well-being.

Trauma's Impact on Interoception:

Interoception is an often overlooked and underappreciated sensory sense that provides information about internal bodily sensations, including heartbeat, breath, hunger, pain, and emotions. It plays a vital role in regulating emotions, maintaining homeostasis, and guiding decision-making processes. Unfortunately, trauma can profoundly affect interoception, leading to difficulties in recognizing, interpreting, and responding to bodily signals.

Hyperarousal and Interoception:

In cases where trauma triggers hyperarousal, individuals may experience heightened interoceptive awareness. They may be acutely attuned to bodily sensations, experiencing a constant state of vigilance and heightened sensitivity. This heightened awareness can lead to chronic anxiety, hypervigilance, and difficulty distinguishing between actual threats and normal bodily experiences. These individuals may struggle to regulate their emotions and may interpret harmless bodily cues as danger signals.

Hypoarousal and Interoception:

Conversely, trauma can also result in hypoarousal, where individuals experience a reduced interoceptive awareness. They may disconnect from their bodily sensations and fail to recognize important signals such as hunger, fatigue, or pain. This disconnection can lead to challenges in self-care, emotional regulation, and decision-making. Individuals may disregard their own physical and emotional needs, potentially exacerbating their overall well-being.

Promoting Healing and Resilience through Interoceptive Awareness:

Recognizing the impact of trauma on interoception provides opportunities for therapeutic interventions that promote healing and resilience. Occupational therapists, equipped with their understanding of sensory integration and trauma-informed care, can play a crucial role in supporting individuals affected by trauma.

Developing Interoceptive Awareness: Occupational therapists utilize various strategies to help individuals develop interoceptive awareness. These may include activities such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, and mindfulness practices. By fostering a sense of connection between the mind and body, individuals can gradually rebuild their relationship with their internal sensations and develop a greater understanding of their bodily needs.

Regulating Arousal States:

Occupational therapists also help individuals regulate their arousal states by teaching self-regulation techniques. These may involve grounding exercises, sensory-based interventions, and the establishment of routines that promote stability and predictability. By enhancing self-regulation skills, individuals can better manage their physiological and emotional responses, promoting a sense of safety and control.

Integration with Trauma-Informed Care:

Integrating interoceptive awareness into trauma-informed care approaches can further enhance the therapeutic process. By acknowledging and addressing the impact of trauma on interoception, healthcare professionals can create a safe and supportive environment that respects each individual's unique experiences and challenges. This approach focuses on empowerment, choice, and collaboration, fostering a sense

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