EMDR and Interoception

Have you ever noticed that a certain thought, memory or experience can cause a physical reaction in your body? Our emotions are tied to this process. Noticing our body’s physical reaction is an important first step in learning emotion regulation. When you can identify it, you can begin to apply techniques to manage the distress  (See April’s blog, When “Just Breathe” Isn’t Enough). Awareness and sensitivity to the connection between cognitive activity, or negative cognitions as we refer to them in EMDR, and the body’s internal signals that accompany those thoughts or memories are an important part of the EMDR process.  

Interoception is the ability to identify physical sensation in the body, including the functioning of organs such as heartbeat, respiration and satiety, as well as the state of the autonomic nervous system (rest & digest, fight/flight or freeze). Take a moment and notice if your body feels pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. How do you know? Have you felt some tension in your shoulders ever since that guy cut you off in traffic? Did you just come back from the gym and notice that your heart rate is faster? Maybe you just spent some time doing one of your favorite things and now you’ve noticed that the muscles in your face have relaxed.

For a little practice “noticing,” the Pendulation technique created by Dr. Peter Levine, is a good starter exercise. To “pendulate” is to shift back and forth from one thing to another. Give the following a try:

  1. Do a body scan from head to toes and try to identify a part of your body that is distress free/neutral and focus on that for a moment. Does your breathing become more regulated, or your heart rate slow down?
  2. Next identify a part of your body that is uncomfortable or perhaps painful and focus on that for a moment. You may notice your breath, heart rate change or perhaps an increase in intensity as you bring your attention to it.
  3. Now shift your attention from the neutral part back to the uncomfortable part a couple of times. The uncomfortable part will likely begin to change, lessen in intensity or go away completely.

Now that you’ve practiced interoception, let’s move on to how this is an integral part of EMDR treatment for trauma. In October’s blog, Uncovering the Mysteries of EMDR and Trauma, I explain in detail how a traumatic event and the negative cognition associated with that event (exp. “I should have done something.”) leaves an imprint in the nervous system. The result is a whole slew of bodily reactions and sensations that can be activated in the future. Perhaps a completely unrelated and non-traumatic situation generates that same cognition of “I should have done something.” Due to the imprint that the previous trauma left, that negative cognition can conjure all of those same physical reactions, even when there is no danger. During EMDR, in addition to treating the traumatic memory, it detaches the associated negative cognition and discharges all of those physical changes in the body. During treatment I will frequently ask the client to do a body scan and tell me what they are noticing. Then we focus on clearing out the sensations that the client is noticing in their body. It may be a heaviness in their chest, nausea or a lump in their throat. Part of preparing for EMDR (phase 2) is teaching the client how to identify even the slightest changes in their body. The skill of interoception is incredibly useful in day to day life. Paying attention to how your body responds as you move through your day, from environment to environment and from one encounter to another. Listen to those cues and use those as a roadmap to create change and a lifestyle that is healthy and happy for you. And of course, seek out a skilled EMDR therapist to help you with the big stuff.


To learn more about Dr. Peter Levine and his work on Somatic Experiencing visit: https://traumahealing.org/about-us/

To learn more about EMDR visit:  http://www.emdr.com/

To learn more about our practice or wanting to connect with an EMDR clinician? Please contact us to set up an appointment.

This post was written by Tonya Nowlin, MA, LPC, to learn more about her please see her bio.