It’s 9 a.m. on Monday morning. You have just started work and are ready to give your presentation to the senior management team. Your PowerPoint slides are near perfect, and you’ve gone through the script a dozen times. You have that.
As everyone gathers in the room, a rush of adrenaline suddenly floods you. The bad way. In a flash, you’ll realize exactly what your body is doing: beads of sweat build up on your forehead, a dry mouth that no amount of water can fix, and a steadily rising heart rate that pounds in your chest.
This ability to sense your body’s signals is known as interoceptive accuracy (IAc). As the example shows, there are various psychosomatic cues that you take in during anxiety. Most importantly, a beating heart is the hardest to ignore.
Because of this, heartbeat perception, as brain scientists call it, is a direct indicator of measuring people’s IAc and reported levels of anxiety and stress.
IAc and a beating heart
The ability to accurately sense your own heartbeat is critical to reassessing your fear from moment to moment. We know that fear is both in the body and in the mind and that a (false) perception of a fast heart rate can easily contribute to the disaster of a panic state.
Because of this, some of the most effective anxiety-related therapies, such as progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, focus on dampening a physiological response, followed by a cognitive reassessment technique.
Regarding IAc, the long-standing view has been that it is an inherited trait that is similar to eye color or size. Your IAc is immutable and immutable. But now there is new evidence that the situation is just as important as the person: while some people have inherently poor interoception skills, we cannot ignore the influence of the broader context. And, if it turns out to be true, this is a definite win for anyone looking to reverse a particular fear-based predisposition.
The study and results
A team of researchers led by Martin F. Whittkamp from the University of Luxembourg investigated the role the environment plays in determining our ability to self-reflect on accurate biofeedback.
The researchers relied on two methods of measuring IAc via heartbeat perception. The first task, known as the counting task, is simply a comparison between the actual readings of your heartbeat and your self-reported readings. Another method, called a heartbeat discrimination task, measures how accurately you can assess whether your heartbeat is synchronized with an external stimulus, e.g. B. a blinking light on a computer screen.
The team in this latest study compared the results of both a heartbeat counting task and a discrimination task under two conditions: a resting state and a stressed state. Mental stress was triggered by the fact that the participants matched the color of a flashing lightbulb with a corresponding button as quickly and precisely as possible. If this wasn’t stressful enough, the experimenter also interfered with a few verbal cues and asked the participant to perform better so as not to ruin the entire experiment.
In addition to comparing the state of stress IAc with the state of rest IAc, the researchers also designed a number of calculation models. These models aimed to measure how much of the interoceptive accuracy was due to the individual’s ability compared to the situation.
The results showed that about 40% of a person’s IAc can be explained by their individual characteristics, while about 30% can be explained by the changing situation, while the remaining 30% is left to measurement errors.
This states that your ability to sense and therefore modulate your physical responses during an anxious state is not fixed. These signals can change. You can learn to be more aware of your beating heart in a highly stressed environment. You can use reassessment techniques to ease your anxiety.
The results of this study have the potential to influence research on stress and anxiety management. For example, a general idea of how biologically predisposed your IAc is might allow scope for pharmaceutical interventions to combat debilitating responses to stressful situations.
For now, the therapeutic power lies in knowing that you can improve your IAc and work towards minimizing your anxiety.
Feldman, G., Greeson, J. & Senville, J. (2010). Different effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and loving meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behavioral Research and Therapy, 48 (10), 1002-1011. doi: 10.1016 / j.brat.2010.06.006
J. Knoll & V. Hodapp (1992). A comparison between two methods of assessing heartbeat perception. Psychophysiology, 29 (2), 218-21; 222. doi: 10.1111 / j.1469-8986.1992.tb01689.x
Richter, D., Manzke, T., Wilken, B. & Ponimaskin, E. (2003). Serotonin receptors: guardians of stable breathing. Trends In Molecular Medicine, 9 (12), 542-548. doi: 10.1016 / j.molmed.2003.10.010
M. Wittkamp, K. Bertsch, C. Vögele & A. Schulz (2018). An analysis of the latent state features of interoceptive accuracy. Psychophysiology, 55 (6), e13055. doi: 10.1111 / psyp.13055
Image via mohamed_hassan / Pixabay.